Political news

RHI Inquiry Live: Jonathan Bell claimed Arlene Foster 'instructed' him to keep botched scheme open

Jonathan Bell giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry for a second day

Inquiry ends for the day

3.50pm

  • That's the end of two days of evidence from former enterprise minister Jonathan Bell. Some of his remarks weren't as headline-grabbing as yesterday's evidence but he did paint a picture of toxic relationships within the DUP and between powerful party special advisers and civil servants 
  • He suggested a delay in introducing cost controls was driven by party political interests rather than the wider public interest
  • On Tuesday, Mr Bell's former special adviser Timothy Cairns will begin his two days of evidence, followed by an appearance by ex-Spad Andrew Crawford on Thursday and Friday

Mr Bell apologises for any 'faults'

  • Panel member Dame Una O'Brien asked Mr Bell if he felt he might have let people down in any way. "I would offer an unequivocal apology for any of my faults," he said

Mr Bell was 'wrong' to secretly record meeting with senior civil servant

  • Mr Bell covertly recorded a meeting with Dr McCormick on December 12 2016. He said he regarded Dr McCormick as a man "of the upmost integrity" but was having difficulty accessing key documents
  • "I only had two key motivations... one was to have a public inquiry into why this occurred. The second was to force action to stop hundreds of millions of ppounds from being taken from the public purse"
  • Sir Patrick pressed Mr Bell as to why he secretly recorded the meeting. "One possible inference is that you did not consider him to be a man of integrity," the chairman said
  • "I do believe him to be a man of integrity," Mr Bell said. "All I wanted to do was to have a right record"
  • He later added: "In terms of the recording I was wrong to do so"

Relationship between Mr Bell and Mrs Foster had 'deteriorated' during 2016

3.30pm

  • The inquiry heard Mr Bell did raise a series of concerns with his party over the scheme, including an allegation it had been kept open to benefit DUP Spad Andrew Crawford

RHI records 'altered'

  • Mr Bell said senior civil servant Chris Stewart told him during a meeting with him and Dr McCormick in February 2016 that the minister's Spad Mr Cairns had asked for RHI records to be changed ro remove mentions to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister
  • Mr Stewart's evidence is that Mr Bell asked him about the omission. He said he thought Mr Bell was aware of the request to change the records and only later realised he didn't know 
  • The ex-minister insisted Mr Stewart raised the omission with him. "He spoke to me," he said.
  • Sir Patrick advised Mr Bell to "take it easy", after the ex-DUP man became agitated during questioning
  • "I told them... they had no ministerial authority to change anything," Mr Bell said. He said he "robustly challenged" Mr Cairns about the matter. Mr Stewart's evidence is that Mr Cairns later rowed with him in a corridor over the matter
  • Mr Cairns's evidence is that he changed a document to remove OFMDFM references. He said Mr Bell would have seen the document was changed in the civil service document system
  • Mr Bell has insisted he didn't see the document. He said Dr McCormick raised the change with him "as a matter of concern"

A request was made to alter RHI documents, the inquiry has heard

RHI grace period

  • Mr Bell said after "reflection" he took advice from ex-DUP leader Peter Robinson that afternoon. He then met Mrs Foster again on the evening of February 9 2016
  • He said he told her "I just can't do this". Timothy Johnston then joined the meeting. Mrs Foster suggested a delay of two weeks
  • He said he later bumped into Dr McCormick and asked if the scheme could remain open for two weeks without a ministerial instruction. The civil servant said it could. Dr McCormick's evidence is that he did not think Mr Bell had a problem with the two-week delay. Mr Bell said he would have preferred it if the scheme had closed. He said the two-week delay "wasn't the perfect solution... it was a possible solution which avoided a ministerial instruction... I wasn't about to start unpicking it"

DUP leader Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster 'instructed me' to keep the RHI scheme open, Jonathan Bell claims

  • Mr Bell said after a decision was made to close the scheme, Mr Cairns told him Mrs Foster wanted it to remain open. He claimed Mr Cairns said: "You'll have to, Arlene wants it open"
  • During a "tense" half-hour meeting on the morning of February 9 2016, Mr Bell claimed Mrs Foster told him to keep the scheme open - just days after its closure had been announced. "I was as frustrated as I possibly could be," he said. "I argued as passionately as I could not for that to go ahead." He said Mrs Foster said: "I am instructing you to reverse your decision". A tearful Mr Bell said he felt "bullied"
  • Mr Bell said there were "other issues at play" between him and Mrs Foster but they had only emerged around that time. "I have to be fair to Arlene... She has been a friend to me (since university)... She has been extremely supportive to me at times of family bereavement"
  • He said Mrs Foster suggested the scheme should remain open because "they were wanting to consult further with industry and take the needs of industry into account". "That was totally unreasonable," Mr Bell said. "This was a scheme which was out of control"
  • The First Minister did not give a timeframe for when the scheme should close, Mr Bell said. "I understood that the decision I made was being reversed," he said.  Mrs Foster's evidence was that she was only suggesting a limited extension of several weeks

Row over scheme closure

2pm

  • After a lunch break, the inquiry was told of confusion over the closure of the scheme in January 2016
  • Mr Bell has claimed the paper trail from the First Minister's office suggested Arlene Foster wanted the scheme closed but he was being told by Mr Cairns she wanted it kept open
  • He said in January the "legally defensible position" was that the scheme should be closed in March. At the start of February, he said the advice given to him changed and he was told the scheme should be closed more quickly due to the "severity of the finances"

Key submission to close scheme 'held-up by DUP officials'

  • The inquiry hears that a submission to close the scheme, which Mr Bell had cleared, was passed. But it was held late on a Friday afternoon after Spad Timothy Cairns contacted Mr Bell's private office, following a conversation with key DUP Spad Timothy Johnston
  • Mr Bell said he had never experienced a submission to be changed after it was signed by a minister and wasn't aware there was an issue
  • Mr Cairns's evidence is that he told Mr Bell about the conversation with Mr Johnston and Mr Bell then tried to ring Mr Johnston but couldn't get him. He said Mr Bell told him to hold the submission but if Mr Johnston did not get back by a certain time then the paper should be cleared. He said he informed Mr Bell that the submission had been held
  • "I had cleared the submission so I wasn't aware that it had been rescinded," Mr Bell said. He said Mr Cairns's evidence was "factually incorrect" and insisted he had never withdrawn his decision
  • Sir Patrick asked: "Can you give us any reason why Mr Cairns would make up that conversation?" "No," Mr Bell replied

'Word was out' before RHI scheme closed

  • Mr Scoffield said "word was out at (poultry business) Moy Park" before the scheme was closed and asked Mr Bell if he had any information about that. Mr Bell said he had no information about special advisers leaking details to industry. But he said the executive itself had to be told. "We had to inform the executive of legislation that we were going to take through"

Poultry producers were among the biggest beneficiaries of the RHI scheme

RHI closure - 'I didn't give industry a heads-up'

  • After a short break, the inquiry is looking at the run-up to changes to the scheme and its eventual closure to new entrants in late February 2016
  • Mr Bell said he had been told by his Spad Mr Cairns there may be a political impact. The ex-minister said the poultry industry is one of the north's biggest employers and his party wanted to "keep the rural economy strong"
  • A written submission for Mr Bell on New Year's Eve 2015 which proposed closing the scheme was initially sent to Mr Cairns
  • Mr Cairns suggested industry and the Ulster Farmers' Union may need to be consulted on the closure however a senior civil servant said this would be inappropriate
  • When asked if he had pressed for any commercial interests to be informed of the possible closure of the scheme, Mr Bell replied "no". He added: "It would be counterintuitive and wrong if you had a scheme running out of control and you didn't have a budget for... to give people a heads-up before it's being closed"

Budgetary pressures

  • Panel member Dr Keith MacLean has pressed Mr Bell on what he knew exactly knew of budgetary pressures in November 2015 and whether the executive would have to pick up the tab
  • Mr Bell said he believed the British government would deal with an overspend and didn't know any differently until the following month
  • He said he wasn't given the precise figures at the time but had been told there had been a spike. He said his focus was getting the legislation to change cost controls through the assembly. "From a political basis you want to attract as little criticism as possible," he said

The RHI scheme put huge pressure on government budgets

'Unprecedented surge in applications'

10.30am

  • Mr Bell said the introduction of RHI cost controls in November 2015, following a massive spike in applications, caused a political row but he had to take that "difficult decision"
  • The ex-minister said he wasn't told the scheme was getting 130 applications a week at that time, causing severe pressures on the budget. "This information wasn't coming through the official system to me"
  • The inquiry has heard there was a "two-week slippage" in the introduction of cost controls. Mr Bell said he did not question the delay and thought it was part of a larger administrative process. "My understanding from the submission is that this is the first we could get the business to the house"
  • Mr Bell's special adviser Timothy Cairns asked on behalf of then DUP minister Arlene Foster whether the assembly debate on passing the cost controls for the RHI scheme could be delayed by a week or two after she had received a query from a constituent
  • A senior civil servant told him that delaying the cost controls by a week would have added at least £2.6m over 20 years
  • Mr Bell said he didn't know about the request and asked why the adviser was "taking instructions from Mrs Foster"

Kevin McGuigan murder

  • Due to a political row following the murder of ex-IRA man Kevin McGuigan in east Belfast in August 2015, DUP ministers began a tactic in September of resigning and being re-appointed
  • Mr Bell's special adviser Timothy Cairns has said in his written evidence the 'in-and-out' resignations contributed to a delay in introducing cost controls
  • Mr Bell said he didn't believe the tactic had any impact on how the RHI row was tackled. "It's not ideal but do I believe it made a difference? No I don't."

The botched RHI scheme will cost taxpayers £490 million

RHI subsidies

  • Mr Bell signed a plan on September 3 2015 to add cost controls to the scheme. The plan had been agreed on August 24 of that year
  • He said he didn't ask further questions and regarded the issue as a "matter than had been resolved"
  • The inquiry is investigating why changes to the subsidies were pushed back to November, not October 2015
  • In October and November 2015 a flood of applications to the non-domestic scheme contributed to serious financial problems

Inquiry 'not a media platform'

9.50am

  • Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin has stated the hearings are "not a media sensational platform". "I could be grateful if everyone could bear that in mind," he said
  • The comments will be seen as a direct reference to Mr Bell's claims yesterday, some of which did not appear to be directly relevant to the inquiry

Sir Patrick Coghlin is chairing the RHI Inquiry. File picture by Colm Lenaghan, Pacemaker

Jonathan Bell's first day of evidence

The former enterprise minister peppered his evidence yesterday with claims two DUP ministers were involved in "sexual misbehaviour".

He also claimed his party mounted a "smear campaign" against him, aided by an Executive Office official and a journalist, after he gave a high-profile interview to the BBC's Stephen Nolan in December 2016 as fears about the RHI scheme hit the headlines.

He repeatedly insisted key information about the extent of problems with the RHI scheme was kept from him over the summer of 2015.

Mr Bell also claimed his special adviser (Spad) Timothy Cairns was chosen for him by the DUP, contrary to the code governing Spads.

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

Live with the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry from 9.45am

After sensational claims yesterday about the "sexual misbehaviour" of two DUP ministers and allegations the party was involved in a smear campaign against him, ex-DUP minister Jonathan Bell is to give further evidence today.

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.

Following a day of striking allegations yesterday, here's hoping Mr Bell still has some more to share today.

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