RHI scandal: Foster denies official’s claim she delayed cost controls

DUP leader Arlene Foster
DUP leader Arlene Foster

One of Arlene Foster’s civil servants has claimed the introduction of RHI cost controls was delayed because of an instruction from Mrs Foster – but she has said that is wrong.

A leaked document obtained by our sister paper the Newsletter contains the second recorded reference by an official to a claim Mrs Foster had some personal involvement in a decision which had the consequence of meaning that the scheme continued to operate for a longer period without any cap on payments.

However, the DUP leader has robustly rejected the claim.

An internal civil service document shows that at the height of what is now known to be the disastrous 2015 'spike' in non-domestic RHI applications there was an attempt to understand why money was haemorrhaging from Stormont’s budget and could not be immediately stopped.

Officials from the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) – at that point under the control of Mrs Foster – met with civil servants from Mrs Foster’s former department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), which was responsible for the RHI scheme.

The minute of a October 21 2015 meeting – just under a month before the uncapped RHI payments were finally halted – contains a DETI official's contemporaneous explanation for why the scheme's rules had not been changed, even after the department had identified in a 2013 consultation document the absence of cost controls as a key problem.

The minute records that a DFP official "enquired about the trigger points [cost controls] that were not implemented in 2013 and should they not have been included?".

In response, an unidentified DETI official "said that it was a ministerial decision to look at the domestic scheme rather than pushing through the trigger points on non-domestic which would have significantly delayed the implementation of the domestic scheme".

The minutes go on to quote a DETI official saying that "there had not been enough resources to do both and that it had taken to December 2014 to introduce the domestic scheme".

Mrs Foster has consistently said she did nothing wrong throughout the life of the scheme and that the failures were the responsibility of her officials.

She has said that she never received a recommendation to introduce cost controls.

The minute seen by this newspaper suggests that – if the civil servant is accurately recalling what had happened – the reason for the absence of an official recommendation was that Mrs Foster had asked her officials not to concentrate on that area until the domestic scheme was up and running.

The News Letter put the contents of the minute to Mrs Foster. In response, the DUP issued a statement which firmly rejected the civil servant's claim.

It said: "At no time was Arlene Foster presented with a choice between advancing the domestic scheme rather than introducing cost controls into the non-domestic scheme.

"Whilst anxious to see the domestic scheme progressed, this was never as an alternative to, nor in preference over the introduction of cost controls with regard to the non-domestic scheme.

"No such cost controls were brought before her as a submission for consideration at any point."

The DUP said: "A public inquiry has now been established. This is the appropriate forum to deal with these issues and it should given be the space to consider all these matters."

The minute seen by the Newsletter is in line with what a DETI official told a Stormont committee several months after the minute was recorded. It is believed that it may have been the same official speaking on both occasions, but that is not clear. A year ago, the official was asked by an Assembly committee why cost controls were not introduced.

He said: "At that point, the Northern Ireland scheme was under-performing and we were not using up what you might say was free money in terms of AME [money direct from the Treasury] to bring it in.

"So the minister decided that the priority should be on the introduction of the domestic RHI scheme so resources were devoted to that. It was not a case that we said ‘well, we’re not going to do x, y and z..."

Those comments were highlighted by Mike Nesbitt in December, with the UUP leader describing them as the "smoking gun" which pointed to Mrs Foster’s role in the decision.

Mrs Foster alluded to that when she addressed the Assembly on December 19, accepting that she had been pressing for the domestic scheme to be introduced quickly.

At that point, she did not categorically reject – as she has now done to the News Letter – the allegation that pressing for the domestic scheme necessarily delayed the non-domestic cost controls.

The then first minister said in December: "It has also been alleged that I contributed to the problem by putting the introduction of the domestic RHI ahead of cost controls on the non-domestic scheme.

"It is quite wrong of anyone to describe this as a smoking gun. I make no apology at all for having pushed to see the domestic scheme introduced, as that was a totally legitimate and rational decision on the information available to me at that time.

"I did not receive any indication that cost control of the non-domestic scheme was an urgent priority at that time."

Three weeks ago the News Letter revealed that the July 2013 consultation document on introducing the domestic RHI scheme – which went to Mrs Foster and to which she wrote the foreword – included proposals for cost controls on the non-domestic scheme.

Two months later, in September 2013, a whistleblower contacted Mrs Foster via her personal email address to warn that the scheme was open to abuse.

And two months after that, in November 2013, the Westminster minister responsible for the GB RHI scheme, Greg Barker, wrote to Mrs Foster alerting her to the introduction of a specific form of cost control known as degression on the GB scheme.