Northern Ireland news

RHI Inquiry as it happened: Jonathan Bell claims he was told of two DUP ministers' 'sexual misbehaviour'

Jonathan Bell is giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry 

Good morning.

We're live with the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry from 9.45am.

Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell is to give evidence today following allegations he swung a punch at his former special adviser Timothy Cairns and tried to break his finger.

Mr Bell was appointed enterprise minister in May 2015 just a few weeks before senior civil servants were made aware of concerns around the scheme. He was still in post when revelations about the cost of the scheme emerged.

The RHI Inquiry is probing what Mr Bell knew about the scheme and any attempts to mitigate the damage.

Written evidence from Dr Andrew McCormick, the most senior civil servant at the time of the immediate RHI crisis, has revealed toxic relationships within the DUP may have hampered how the crisis was dealt with.

His evidence also alleged a friend of Mr Bell accompanied him to a key meeting with Dr McCormick at the height of the crisis in December 2016 and made a spiritual 'prophecy' that the ex-DUP minister would be vindicated by the inquiry.

The first of two days of oral evidence from Mr Bell is to begin today. After a day-and-a-half of fairly dry evidence from Dr McCormick, it's hoped Mr Bell will have a few surprises.

What was RHI?

The botched scheme, which was designed to encourage people to use more eco-friendly technology, effectively paid users for burning fuel.

RHI is expected to cost taxpayers around £490 million.

For anyone unfamiliar with how the scandal unfolded, here's a quick reminder.

Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell is giving evidence to the RHI inquiry today

Hearing begins

9.45am

  • Mr Bell became minister for the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti), later the Department for the Economy, on May 11 2015. He said he was "vaguely aware" of RHI but had no real knowledge of the scheme until he became minister
  • In October and November 2015 a flood of applications to the scheme contributed to serious financial problems
  • He said when he was appointed minister, RHI wasn't included in a list of urgent issues which needed his immediate attention
  • "There was a reasonable assumption this was a scheme that was in hand," he said
  • He said he was told by Dr McCormick "somewhere around the summer (of 2015)" that there were concerns about the scheme. "It wasn't a formal meeting. It was a conversation and the detail of it was vague to say the least"
  • The scheme should have been closed to new entrants much earlier, Mr Bell said. "As a minister, I'd never spend money I didn't have," he said. The scheme closed to new applicants in late February 2016. "If you take ministerial office you have to make unpopular decisions"
  • "Had I been told that we did not have the budget on this, I would have closed it on day one"
  • He said on a meeting on June 8 2015, RHI was raised but his special adviser Timothy Cairns said he didn't want it discussed. "I took from that that this was an issue that could be discussed on another day," he said
  • Mr Bell said he didn't know "and all the evidence shows I didn't know at that stage" that there were serious concerns about the scheme. However, he said he believes Mr Cairns had more information which he allegedly obtained from civil servants. "My department, quite concerning for me now, was sitting on significant information"
  • At a meeting between June 8 and early July, RHI was raised again. He claimed again Mr Cairns said the matter was being dealt with. However Dr McCormick and senior civil servant Chris Stewart said the matter had to be addressed "soon"
  • He insisted he was not told of a potential huge overspend when the issue was first raised on June 8. "This issue was raised and closed down within minutes"

Jonathan Bell told the inquiry no formal minutes were taken of key meetings 

10.45am

  • No formal minutes were taken of some key meetings, the inquiry heard. Mr Bell said he presumed that minutes had been taken
  • "I thought they were keeping a formal record," he said
  • He said if there was a budget issue "that has to come to me formally". "I wasn't given a position, I wasn't given accurate figures," he said. "I didn't know what budget overspend or potential overspend there was"
  • An email to a colleague from senior civil servant Chris Stewart on June 8 said Mr Bell had been told of three "remedial" actions to tackle RHI and that the minister had asked to be kept informed.  Mr Bell insisted Mr Cairns had shut down the discussion
  • Sir Patrick asked why Mr Stewart would "make up an email like that"? Mr Bell said he did "not know" and had no memory of being told about the remedial actions

Disputes within the DUP

Timothy Cairns' relationship with Jonathan Bell has been described as 'dysfunctional'

  • He said Timothy Cairns was appointed as his special adviser by the party. Then leader Peter Robinson suggested Mr Cairns, he said. "All the other Spads had been taken". "There were many other people I would have chosen"
  • He said before he became a junior minister in May 2011, there "had been a difficulty" with another minister's special adviser" who was "unsuitable". After that, the party then decided it would appoint all special advisers
  • A letter given to permanent secretary Dr McCormick, which described Mr Cairns as "by far the best candidate", was drafted by the ministerial Private Office, he said. "I thought these were just standard letters," he said. Sir Patrick suggested a "little integrity" was needed in that case
  • Inquiry senior counsel David Scoffield asked if the code governing the appointment of special advisers had ever been discussed with Mr Bell. "No," he said
  • Mr Scoffield said the code stated that ministers had to assess several candidates and that they had a "personal responsibility" in that regard
  • Mr Bell said on both occasions when he was appointed as a minister, he was "invited to sign" for his special adviser. He said neither his party nor his private office gave him any advice on the legal position

Ministerial trip to London on June 9 and 10 2015

  • Mr Cairns and Dr McCormick have both suggested RHI was discussed during a business trip to London. Mr Bell said he had no recollection that it was. "We arrived very late one evening and had a meal together. This was just general socialisation and chat"
  • The inquiry is hearing about a breakfast meeting during which Mr Bell and Mr Cairns had a disagreement over who would take a key decision. Mr Bell suggested Mr Cairns was involved in a "deliberate attempt" to restrict his powers as a minister. "I think to be fair to him he felt responsible to his senior Spads," he said. "On reflection, on many occasions it was Spads who were taking decisions"

The inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme resumed on Tuesday after a summer break. Picture by Mal McCann

Mr Bell denies threatening to break Mr Cairns's finger

  • During the breakfast meeting, there was a heated exchange after Mr Bell told Mr Cairns it was not the job of a Spad to overrule a minister
  • In his written statement, Mr Bell claimed Mr Cairns insulted him with his finger raised. Mr Cairns has suggested that Mr Bell then threatened to break his finger
  • "I have never tried to break anybody's finger and I never would," he said. He said he would never "inflict physical violence" on anyone
  • Mr Bell said he was being "fitted up" and said Mr Cairns told the DUP he would "fit his story" around that of the party
  • He claimed that Executive Office press secretary David Gordon said of him: "This monster needs to be put to sleep"
  • He also claimed that Sky Ireland Correspondent David Blevins was briefing the DUP on "how to destroy me". He claimed the suggestion was to attack his Christian faith
  • Sir Patrick said the RHI Inquiry is only concerned with personal relationships in reference to the RHI scheme
  • Mr Bell said following the dispute, he dismissed Mr Cairns for the day and said he could not attend a key meeting with government minister Amber Rudd that morning. He said the Spad replied: "You'll not tell me what to do". "I had instructed him not to go to the meeting but he got into the taxi (to go to the meeting)" with Mr Bell and senior civil servants including Dr McCormick. He claimed Mr Cairns only decided not to go to the meeting when Mr Bell raised it with Dr McCormick in the taxi
  • When asked about claims from Mr Cairns that Mr Bell had sacked him, Mr Bell said he had only been dismissed for the day. "It was frankly untenable that someone who behaved like that (could be allowed to go to the meeting)". He said senior DUP Spad Timothy Johnston rang him later that day to remind him that Spads are appointed by the party and not individual ministers

Timothy Johnston, DUP chief executive and former special adviser to Arlene Foster. Picture by Mal McCann

Mr Bell spoke to Peter Robinson about his dispute with Mr Cairns

  • He said during a meeting with Mr Robinson and Mr Johnston about the row, the then DUP leader described Mr Cairns's behaviour as "absolutely outrageous" and said he would sack a special adviser who behaved like that. Mr Bell said he was given assurances there would not be a repeat of the same behaviour
  • The inquiry heard that Mr Cairns took a period of leave following the row
  • He said during the period that Mr Cairns was on leave, ministerial submissions were sent directly to Mr Bell rather than to a Spad
  • He claimed that during that time ministerial business progressed smoothly
  • When Mr Cairns returned, Mr Bell said the Spad gave a "complete and total apology" and said he "desperately needed his job for the sake of his family". He said "in the main" Mr Cairns then behaved properly
  • The inquiry heard that Mr Cairns said that during a 'clear the air' meeting in late June 2015 between him, Mr Robinson, Mr Johnston and Mr Bell his allegations that Mr Bell had bullied him were also due to be discussed. However, he said when he expected an apology from Mr Bell, that didn't happen and was upset when it ended. Mr Johnston also "seems to side with what Mr Cairns says", Mr Scoffield said
  • Mr Bell said that meeting was only due to discuss Mr Cairns's behaviour. "I was asked that if he was prepared to apologise and change his behaviour would I be prepared to meet with him?... I said I was". "I do recollect that as I walked out to get to my car... he followed me out and said he was really sorry... he was tearful"
  • The minister said he thought Mr Cairns was content with the outcome of the meeting. He said they had a good professional and personal relationship and used to have dinners with each other's family. "I've built sandcastles with his children on beaches in Portstewart... He used to invite me to watch football matches with his brother... I don't recognise what has subsequently been said". Mr Bell said no one in his party or the assembly had ever raised any complaint against him
  • Mr Bell has accused his party of mounting a "massive smear campaign" against him. "I am certain on the basis of text messages that you gave me in evidence," he said. He also made claims about the Sunday Life's coverage
  • The ex-DUP minister said "no one ever brought anything to my attention of bullying behaviour... no complaints were ever made". "I was completely blind to anything that was going on"
  • Mr Scoffield asked Mr Bell if he now feels there was sufficient trust between him and Mr Cairns for them to have a successful working relationship. "No, I don't," he said. Mr Bell added that Mr Cairns was "intimidated" by other special advisers. "The other special advisers thought he was a Walter Mitty character who wanted to be them." He also claimed Mr Cairns told him Mr Johnston forced him to canvass for East Belfast DUP MP Gavin Robinson in the general election
  • Mr Bell said he did not want to '"demonise" Mr Cairns. "I can't bear false witness against him," he said. "Timothy did work hard at times for the department." He said any previous difficulties between him and Mr Cairns did not affect how RHI was dealt with
  • "The scheme was kept open because other outside influences wanted it kept open," he said
  • Mr Bell has denied assertions from Mr Johnston and Mr Cairns that RHI was discussed, including tariff changes, during the 'clear the air' meeting

Mr Cairns had 'considerable control' over Mr Bell's weekly ministerial meetings, the ex-DUP minister claimed

  • Mr Bell said he was working "on the basis that if there was a serious issue the permanent secretary would have talked to me about it"
  • The inquiry heard that RHI did not appear on the agenda for Mr Bell's ministerial meetings on June 22 2015, July 1 and July 7
  • Mr Bell asked how he could address RHI "if it wasn't on the agenda and they hadn't given me a briefing"?
  • Mr Scoffield asked Mr Bell if he was suggesting that Mr Cairns was "actively encouraging" civil servants to keep RHI off the agenda. "I can't prove that he stopped it from going on the agenda," Mr Bell said but he took that as an "inference"
  • The inquiry heard that Dr McCormick said Mr Cairns had never tried to interfere with the agenda of ministerial meetings

Mr Bell said he 'didn't get' key RHI submission

  • The ex-minister said he didn't get a key submission about RHI on July 8. He said it was also never talked about. "There was no discussion on this submission," he said
  • He said he didn't ask for an update on RHI because he was led to believe "this wasn't a serious issue". "I didn't get the July 8 submission which in hindsight is outrageous if it was marked urgent," he said. He said he told officials if there was any urgent business he needed to be made aware of it before he went on holiday. Mr Bell said he checked his work emails during his 10-day break but received no urgent messages

1pm

Inquiry has broken for lunch

2pm

  • After a break, the inquiry is hearing again about a key RHI submission on July 8 2015
  • The document outlined the the need for cost controls on the scheme
  • Mr Bell said he was only aware of the July 8 submission in September 2015. He said a revised submission which suggested a four-week delay on introducing changes to RHI was signed by him in that month
  • "Had the urgent business been given to the minister I would have signed it and carried it through"
  • Mr Scoffield said Mr Cairns's written evidence stated the July 8 submission was presented to Mr Bell at an 'issues meeting' on August 24. He said the minister "didn't have the paper" but was aware of the contents
  • "I have no recollection of it (the paper) being physically presented to me," he said. He said the decision to postpone cost controls for four weeks was decided at the August meeting. "I was being informed this was the only way to get the necessary action taken"

Sky denies journalist David Blevins briefed DUP against Jonathan Bell

  • Mr Bell claimed earlier today that Sky News journalist David Blevins advised the DUP on how to "discredit" him. The BBC reported a spokesman for Sky News has denied the claim. "The suggestion by Jonathan Bell that David Blevins advised the DUP on anything is completely and utterly untrue," he said

Delay on RHI cost controls

  • Dr McCormick and Timothy Cairns told Mr Bell action was needed on RHI before the August meeting. "I was asked to extend something I didn't know about because I didn't have the precise detail," he said
  • Mr Bell said he was told of possible cost controls but was advised they could only be introduced following a four-week delay
  • He said he began asking civil servants about the cost of the scheme in the few days leading up to the August meeting
  • "I cannot understand why my own department and the accounting officer did not come to me (in July)," he said
  • Mr Scoffield said Mr Cairns has alleged he went through the July 8 submission with Mr Bell "in detail" on July 9 2015 before the minister went on holiday
  • "I have no recollection whatsoever of seeing physical copy," he said. Mr Bell said all submissions were given to him in hard copies as final drafts. He added: "The purpose of a submission was for me to have it (after political advice was given)"
  • Mr Bell said it was "possible" Mr Cairns had mentioned RHI to him on July 9 but he "couldn't recall it". He said it was "incorrect" that Mr Cairns had gone through the submission with him
  • He said urgent budgetary matters should have been raised with him directly without needing to go through his Spad. "This is the only urgent matter that seemed to have sat for a period of weeks... I had no reason to believe that my Spad would not give me something marked as urgent"

DUP chief executive Timothy Johnston (right) and his brother-in-law John Robinson (left)

DUP Spads and RHI

  • Timothy Johnston, now DUP chief executive, his brother-in-law, senior DUP figure John Robinson, and ex-Spad Andrew Crawford had "interests in the chicken industry", the inquiry heard
  • Mr Bell said he was told that information by his Spad Timothy Cairns. Mr Bell said he didn't know if the information was given to him in the summer of 2015 or early 2016
  • The ex-minister said Dr McCormick told him he knew neither Mr Bell or Mr Cairns "gave a fig" for delaying cost controls for four weeks but it had to be done
  • "If Andrew McCormick knew that neither Timothy Cairns or I wanted a delay, why did we delay for four weeks?" he said
  • Mr Scoffield said: "It's not for you to ask the questions, it's for you to answer the questions". He asked if Mr Bell was aware some people may have been acting for their private interest rather than for the public interest, why he did not act
  • Sir Patrick has pressed Mr Bell about when he heard other DUP Spads may have had personal interests in the RHI scheme. Mr Bell suggested he wasn't told until 2016. The scheme was closed to new entrants in late February 2016
  • Panel member Dr Keith MacLean has asked why he didn't highlight the information about DUP Spads as a "conflict of interest". Mr Bell said the allegation was "unsubstantiated"
  • Mr Bell said if Mr Cairns was aware of the possible conflict of interest he should have acted
  • Mr Scoffield said according to Mr Cairns, it was Mr Bell who told him about the three DUP members who may have had interests in the RHI scheme. Mr Bell has denied this

Two DUP ministers involved in 'sexual misbehaviour'

  • Mr Bell has claimed his Spad told him personal information about two DUP colleagues. "It was Timothy Cairns who explained, inappropriately... in garish and lurid detail the sexual misbehaviour of two DUP ministers". Mr Bell added that the detail was "explicit"
  • Mr Bell claimed that Mr Cairns told him of a row between senior civil servant David Sterling, now head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and Andrew Crawford in which Mr Sterling shouted at Mr Crawford "you kept this scheme open for the benefit of your family"
  • The inquiry has resumed after an afternoon break
  • Mr Bell said civil servants should have raised the RHI issue with him over the summer of 2015. "I cannot understand why a matter of urgency of July 8 was not raised again"
  • The ex-minister said he was freely available over that summer. He said if there was no ministerial business that day he worked in his constituency office or at carried out research at home
  • He said there was "no attempt" to contact him over the issue
  • Mr Bell said he repeatedly asked senior civil servants of the budgetary implications of the scheme. He said he was told it was "impossible" to give him that information. "I genuinely believed the explanations I was being given," he said
  • Sir Patrick asked why civil servants would tell Mr Bell they didn't have precise information then give it to him in a document several days later (on August 24 2015)
  • "I can't understand, why if these figures were available... did no one just give me the document," Mr Bell replied

Jonathan Bell 'didn't know' of possible abuse of scheme

4pm

  • A sharp rise in applications in October and November 2015 contributed to problems with the RHI scheme
  • An email from DUP official Andrew Crawford to Mr Cairns in late August 2015 highlighted that the scheme could effectively pay people to heat empty houses
  • Mr Bell said that problem wasn't brought to his attention. "I can't understand why significant information was kept outside the system," he said
  • The ex-minister said in the run-up to the key August 24 meeting, he was told by Timothy Cairns that changes in tariffs could only be introduced with a four-week delay
  • Sir Patrick asked why Mr Bell didn't ask for a ministerial submission. He replied that he was told in August a submission would be sent to him
  • Panel member Dame Una O'Brien said it was "hard to understand" why Mr Bell wouldn't ask for more detail. "You strike me as someone who'd say 'what are you talking about'?" she said. Mr Bell later confirmed he couldn't recollect any conversations about RHI from early July to late August

5.05pm

The inquiry ends for the day. Mr Bell is to resume his evidence tomorrow morning

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