Big mistakes in cash for ash admits Foster – but not by her

Arlene Foster at the RHI hearing
Arlene Foster at the RHI hearing

In a long-anticipated appearance before the public inquiry into the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, Arlene Foster has said that she did nothing wrong but there were failures by other people.

The minister who set up the RHI scheme without cost controls and with a subsidy level higher than the cost of fuel told Sir Patrick Coghlin’s inquiry in Belfast that she had no recollection of a crucial meeting where one of her officials claims to have made clear to Mrs Foster that there was a far cheaper alternative to the RHI scheme.

And she said that some of the evidence put to her in submissions by her officials did not convey to her what they now claim to have intended.

Several of those civil servants have already conceded that their submissions were misleading or inaccurate.

Mrs Foster appeared before the inquiry at 2pm yesterday and spent more than three hours giving evidence.

She will continue to give evidence today and into next week.

Senior counsel to the inquiry David Scoffield QC began by telling Mrs Foster that her appearance before the inquiry was something which she would have been “anticipating for some time” and he wanted to give her a chance to “lay out your stall” by asking “a question with which many of the public may be concerned, and it’s this: are there any of the mistakes or errors in relation to the RHI scheme which you’ve identified for which you bear any measure of personal responsibility?”

Mrs Foster responded: “First of all, can I say to the panel and to you Mr Scoffield that I very much welcome the opportunity to be here at a fact-finding inquiry because up until now we have just had a lot of speculation, a lot of it misinformed, some of it very malevolent, but it is good to be here to look at the facts of what happened in that case.

“Clearly, the way in which the RHI scheme has brought it to this place is a matter of deep regret for me, politically and personally, because obviously we don’t have a government here in Northern Ireland as a result of what happened in December and January 2016 and 2017 – of course that was the reason given, I would of course say that it was the reason given but not the actual cause of the collapse of the government, but it was a useful excuse at that particular point of time.

“In terms of what happened during the scheme, of course it is for the panel to make a determination as to what went wrong at that time. But certainly having reviewed all of the submissions that have been sent to me it is difficult to see what I could have done differently at that time.

“There will be known unknowns and unknown unknowns but certainly there seems to be a lot of unknown unknowns. I wasn’t brought up to date in relation to things that were happening in the background and I regret that.

“If that had been brought to my attention, things may have been a lot different.”

Mr Scoffield pressed the former minister to answer the question he asked as to whether she felt she bore any personal responsibility for any of the failings.

He said that she seemed to be saying that with hindsight there were several things she would do differently but at the time she didn’t do anything which was wrong.

Mrs Foster said: “That’s correct. Yes, that is my position.”

Dr Keith MacLean, the technical assessor to the inquiry, put it to her that there is a difference between doing things right and not doing anything wrong. He asked her: “Did you do all the right things?”

Mrs Foster said that was for the panel to decide but “from my rereading of things I didn’t see at that particular point in time, if I had been made aware of various issues then I would have acted differently”.

Pressed again to say if there were any things which she could have done or should have done, Mrs Foster said: “None that spring to mind at present.”

Mrs Foster disputed striking evidence from the man who was the most senior official within her department at the time when the RHI scheme was set up in 2012.

He told the inquiry that there was a Stormont culture of spending the maximum money available from the Treasury even if that meant choosing a scheme which was more expensive, so less value for money.

David Sterling, who is now the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the man running public services in Northern Ireland in the absence of any government ministers, said: “If there’s an opportunity to draw down money which will give an economic benefit in Northern Ireland, the realpolitik here is that we draw down the maximum amount that we can because we will get an economic impact from that.”

Initially, when talking about the issue in general terms, Mrs Foster accepted that “the last thing a Northern Ireland Executive wants to do ... is to hand money back to the Treasury” and said that “there would have been pressure to spend that money”.

She said that the “pressure would have been on to find a scheme to spend that money ... there would be an awareness that if money is coming in ... then we have to make sure we find a way of spending it”.

Mr Scoffield asked whether “a further logical side of that” was that “you want to spend as much of that money as you can”.

Mrs Foster agreed, saying: “Well, that’s just the flip side of what I’ve said. You don’t want to send the money back; therefore you want to spend the money that you have been given by Treasury. Yes, that’s the flip side of that.”

Picking up on Mr Sterling’s evidence, Mr Scoffield then asked whether that incentivised the department to go for a scheme which is worse value for money because it would get more money into Northern Ireland.

Mrs Foster said: “No, I don’t think that would have been a consideration for me. I can understand where he’s coming from in relation to that, with hindsight, but no, that wouldn’t have been a consideration.”

In earlier evidence yesterday, Mrs Foster’s former Spad Andrew Crawford said that he couldn’t understand why officials were “so adamant” in pushing an RHI so strongly, rather than looking at other options for spending the money available from the Treasury.

He said that he and Mrs Foster were “agnostic on the issue” of what form the incentive should take, adding: “This was not something that the minister was really pushing, [saying] ‘we need to bring a Northern Ireland Renewable Heat Incentive’ ... this was a non-controversial issue within energy division.”

He also said that Mrs Foster had been told what senior official Fiona Hepper now claims she was told in an unminuted meeting “there is no way she would have pressed ahead with the scheme”.

And Dr Crawford accepted that he had failed to protect his minister by failing to fully interrogate a misleading submission to the minister from officials. Dr Crawford said that he had not read a key report on which the submission was meant to have been based, even though Mrs Foster believed that he would have at least “skim-read” such technical reports for her.

Dr Crawford, who is now back working part-time for the DUP, said that the finance division in DETI were “very stringent” about budgets but no one had ever flagged up to him in the department that there was a unique form of funding involved.