Officials failed to make a formal submission to Arlene Foster to introduce RHI cost controls – despite having proposed that in a public consultation document, the DUP has said.
This morning the News Letter revealed that just seven months into the scheme civil servants had done considerable work on drawing up what was in effect a budgetary insurance policy but, for reasons which remain unclear, the controls were never put in place.
Mrs Foster, the then minister, has always said that she did not go against her officials’ advice at any point.
This evening the DUP released a statement which implicitly appeared to confirm that Mrs Foster was aware of the contents of the consultation document – which included cost control proposals – by describing it as “the minister’s 2013 consultation document”.
However, the party said – as the Department for the Economy had earlier said – that officials had never followed that document up with a formal submission to the minister in which they proposed that cost controls be implemented.
The News Letter put three questions to the DUP on Tuesday night: Why were cost controls not put in after the consultation; did the minister play any role in the decision not to introduce cost controls at this juncture, and, if so, what possible reason could she have had for such a decision?
The DUP initially responded with a statement which simply said: “The questions raised are exactly the kind of matters that the public inquiry has been established to consider.
“It is the appropriate forum to address these questions and should given be the space to consider the matters such as those that you have raised.”
However, after this morning’s News Letter report the party released another statement which said: “The issue of the minister’s 2013 consultation which included consideration of cost controls is not a new story and has been covered extensively in the press over the last two months. As confirmed by the department in the article on foot of the consultation outcome no submission was brought to the minister to introduce cost controls.”
The consultation document shows that Mrs Foster’s officials in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) made the proposal in July 2013 – just months after the non-domestic scheme had been launched in November 2012 and prior to a whistleblower contacting Mrs Foster personally in late 2013 to warn her of what would turn out to be the disastrous shortcoming of the scheme.
The July 2013 document shows that even at that point the department was acutely aware of the possibility that the costs of the RHI scheme could balloon out of control and they proposed measures to prevent such a situation developing.
The document itself contained a personal foreword from Mrs Foster in which she wrote: “I am conscious that whilst this is a sector that requires significant support, budget levels are finite and cannot be breached.”