The RHI inquiry has said that it has no concern about the potential for a clause in the legal funding for many key witnesses being used to gag them.
However, the public inquiry, which is investigating the ‘cash for ash’ scandal which led to Stormont’s collapse, said that it would “take a very dim view” of any attempt to influence witnesses’ evidence.
Last week the News Letter revealed that former ministers, Spads and officials are being given publicly funded lawyers paid for by their old departments.
However, the funding is accompanied by written terms and conditions about circumstances in which the funding may be recouped.
One of those conditions does not state that the department will seek to recover the money if the witness acts contrary to the public interest but rather if they “act against the interests of the department”.
TUV leader Jim Allister, himself a veteran QC, raised concern at the potential for that to “gag” witnesses “on the pain of facing their own costs if they criticise the department”.
However, when asked if it had any concern about the conditions pertaining to funding lawyers’ witnesses, the inquiry said in a statement: “The inquiry is aware that the funding arrangements put in place by the NI Civil Service (NICS) departments have resulted in former and current ministers, Spads and officials being represented by a range of different legal representatives.
“This is, at least in part, in recognition of the fact that there may be differences between them and that separate representation is appropriate.
“We have not detected any suggestion in the arrangements put in place, of which we are aware, of any attempt to ‘gag’ an individual or influence their evidence.
“On the contrary, NICS has fully co-operated with the inquiry to date. Needless to say, the inquiry would take a very dim view of any attempt to influence a witness’s evidence.”
The News Letter asked the Department for the Economy – the main department responsible for the RHI scheme – how it will interpret the phrase “the interests of the department” and why witnesses had not simply been told to act in the public interest.
It referred the query to the Department of Finance, which is handling the legal funding on its behalf.
Yesterday the Department of Finance said in a statement: “All departmental actions should be conducted in the public interest and in respect of the public inquiry into the RHI scheme, departments have a clear interest in facilitating the inquiry to pursue the full facts around the RHI scheme, regardless of whether this involves a department being criticised.
“Participants are required to cooperate with the public aims of the inquiry and its proceedings.”
The department said that conditions attached to the funding of legal representation by government “are to promote the aims of the inquiry and will not prevent any participant from giving evidence to the inquiry”.
The department said that it would publish details of all expenditure on lawyers for the inquiry and that “if a former minister or former special adviser is found by the inquiry to have acted inappropriately against the public interest, the department may seek to recover any costs paid to that person and funding may be terminated”.
It also said that costs may be recovered “if the former minister or former special advisor or their legal representative, in the course of the inquiry hearings, acts in a way which is inappropriate and contrary to the interests of the department”.
The department added that if any former minister or Spad is unhappy with these conditions, “they can decide to seek financial support directly from the inquiry or to cover their own legal costs”.