Northern Ireland news

Former DUP Spad Stephen Brimstone quizzed about extent of farming work in boiler shed

Former DUP special adviser Stephen Brimstone has been giving evidence to the RHI inquiry
Brendan Hughes

FORMER DUP special adviser Stephen Brimstone faced questions yesterday over how much farming work goes on inside his RHI-heated shed.

Mr Brimstone has an RHI boiler installed in a shed used as an "agricultural workshop/storage", but the boiler is mainly used to heat his adjacent Co Antrim home.

The installation was the subject of two site inspections by energy officials and a police probe following complaints, but it was found to comply with the non-domestic RHI scheme.

The front gates at the home of former DUP special adviser Stephen Brimstone

Mr Brimstone was a DUP special adviser (Spad) when he applied for RHI in August 2015.

His application came just weeks after Timothy Cairns, DUP Spad to the enterprise minister, sent him papers outlining forthcoming plans to introduce cost controls.

Follow the RHI inquiry live as Stephen Brimstone gives evidence today (Thursday September 27)

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Mr Brimstone in his witness statements to the RHI inquiry had denied any real or perceived conflict of interest in relation to RHI.

But attending the inquiry yesterday, Mr Brimstone said he "thoroughly regrets" not withdrawing himself from the conversation with DUP Spads in July 2015 which led to him receiving the papers on RHI cost control plans.

"I should have said, 'Guys, I need to take a step back from this conversation, there's a real perceived conflict of interest here,'" he admitted.

Mr Brimstone said he wishes he had never come across the RHI scheme, which has caused controversy over spiralling costs and allegations of claimants running boilers 24/7 to gain bigger subsidy payments.

The inquiry heard Mr Brimstone's biomass boiler usage on average is around four hours a day.

Video: Who or what is a Spad?

The former Spad told the inquiry: "There was no way I was out to try and milk the system in any shape or form.

"I was trying to run it as efficiently as I could... I never considered running a boiler 100 per cent of the time."

Mr Brimstone's home is built on farming land gifted by his father-in-law, and his large adjacent shed is used for some agricultural activity.

Images supplied to the inquiry of the shed where Mr Brimstone's RHI boiler is installed

He previously had a biomass boiler installed in the shed for heating his house in 2007, but in 2014 was considering his heating options as it was "requiring an increasing amount of maintenance".

The inquiry heard that Land and Property Services (LPS) considered the shed to be an agricultural building, but energy regulator Ofgem had never asked LPS for this information in the course of its inspections.

However, inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin said the rating was only "one aspect" of examining the building's use.

"It's in his favour if they don't rate it, if they exempt it, because they're exempting it on the basis of an agricultural building, but it doesn't mean to say that it is actually used as an agricultural building, and that seems to have played quite a role in the various assessments of this building," he said.

But inquiry counsel Joseph Aiken told the panel that "if the [boiler] installation goes into an agricultural building, there is likely to be no question of its eligibility to the RHI scheme".

In RHI audit papers obtained by the inquiry, inspectors say they "could find limited evidence of the building described as an agricultural workshop/storage being used for agricultural purposes".

Images supplied to the inquiry of the shed where Mr Brimstone's RHI boiler is installed

Sir Patrick asked Mr Brimstone what farming work was carried out in the shed.

Mr Brimstone said it was used for "working on machinery" such as tractors, adding that he is "actually working on refurbishing one at the moment".

Mr Brimstone will return to the inquiry today to resume giving evidence.

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