DUP leader was put under polite but relentless pressure in her RHI inquiry debut

Arlene Foster answers questions yesterday in Stormont's senate chamber from David Scoffield QC, whose back is to the camera
Arlene Foster answers questions yesterday in Stormont's senate chamber from David Scoffield QC, whose back is to the camera

Arlene Foster had given evidence to the RHI inquiry yesterday for almost an hour before the chair, Sir Patrick Coghlin, asked her a question directly.

The DUP leader had been answering questions from the inquiry barrister, David Scoffield QC, and follow-on questions from the panel expert, Dr Keith MacLean, when at 2.52pm Sir Patrick intervened with a query. His voice was soft and his tone polite:

“This [scheme] was a first of its kind, it hadn’t happened in Europe ... that is one of the least of the reasons that your department sought external consultancy advice.

“Dr Crawford was described as a special advisor, [the inquiry was told] that you depended on him to be familiar as far as he could with this type of expert advice because the officials wouldn’t have known about it.

“Does it therefore surprise you that Dr Crawford tells us he didn’t read any of the CEPA reports?”

The question was the start of a civil but intense exchange that epitomised the questioning on the opening session of Mrs Foster’s evidence.

She replied that she had taken it that Fiona Hepper [a department official] understood the so-called CEPA expert report and “was challenging some of the findings of the CEPA report ... so I don’t take it that the energy division didn’t understand the report”.

The question about Andrew Crawford not having read the report went glaringly unanswered. So Sir Patrick said of Mrs Foster’s reply: “Ah, that’s an interesting point, but can I ask you again: does it surprise you that the person who you assumed would read expert reports in fact in this pretty crucial area, of the RHI, he didn’t read any of it?”

Mrs Foster explained that the submission came up on Thursday June 8. “... I don’t know whether it was given to Andrew on Thursday afternoon or the Friday morning, we were then scheduled to have a meeting with Fiona on the Monday, which then turned out to be the Tuesday, so I understand from Andrew’s evidence what he has said over this past couple of days he didn’t ask for a copy of that report but that was over a weekend and we were then having a meeting with Fiona around the issue.”

Sir Patrick said: “All of that is true, he never asked to see, nor did he read the CEPA 31st of May, the CEPA final of June, or the addendum.”

The exchange went on (it can be read in full below) and illustrated the relentless way the panel grilled Mrs Foster yesterday on her leadership.

Mr Scoffield had said at the beginning of the hearing that questions were ‘inquisitorial’. His questions would be probing, not adversarial, he said.

But they were deeply probing, even if gentle in tone.

Mrs Foster had said there was a predisposition to RHI from the beginning. On whose part? “Well, it wasn’t my predisposition,” she replied.

Were there any errors for which she took a measure of personal responsibility? Clearly, she replied, the way the scheme “brought us to this place” was of great regret to her, personally and politically.

Were there things she didn’t do that she should have done, he asked? Mrs Foster said none sprang to mind.

The former first minister explained that she was the person, as minister at the Department of Enterprise, who set policy and gave the lead.

Did this mean every policy or more important ones, Mr Scoffield asked? Were there times she felt the need to get more involved in management rather than directing policy?

Mrs Foster mentioned the wide-ranging nature of the department’s brief and achievements she was “proud of today” such as in tourism.

Energy was complex in comparison to other areas.

Was it an area of the job she favoured? It was “one of the more challenging” parts of the portfolio, Mrs Foster replied.

If it was a less favoured part of her portfolio, did it result in less scrutiny? “No, probably more,” she said.

Did she have concerns ever dealing with something in which she felt she or her officials lacked the expertise? Mrs Foster said that on occasion they used consultants.

As special advisor, what was Dr Crawford’s primary role, Mr Scoffield asked? He had many, she replied.

Did he assist with policy development? Yes, he did. Did he have expertise? He was good on detail, had a PhD and expertise reading documents.

Yesterday showed that this inquiry will be shining an intense spotlight on the very processes of devolved government itself.

• The full exchange between Sir Patrick and Mrs Foster:

SIR PATRICK COGHLIN:

This was a first of its kind, it hadn’t happened in Europe, in fact worldwide it hadn’t happened, it was an incentive-based scheme in an immature market, it was volatile, it was unpredictable, presumably that is one of the least the reasons that your department sought external consultancy advice. Dr Crawford was described as a special advisor, [the inquiry was told] that you depended on him to, ah, be familiar as far as he could with, ah, this type of expert advice because the officials wouldn’t have known about it. Does it therefore surprise you that Dr Crawford tells us he didn’t read any of the CEPA reports?

ARLENE FOSTER:

Well I think the first thing is when I say it has to come back in an intelligble way, I mean not just for the special advisor but also for the energy officials, because when I read the evidence, particularly from Fiona Hepper, around — we went back to challenge the Cepa report, so I come to take from that she understood the CEPA report and therefore was challenging some of the findings of the CEPA report, between the final draft and the final report, um, so I don’t take it that the energy division didn’t understand the report because how can you challenge if you don’t understand the report?

COGHLIN:

Ah that’s, that’s an interesting point, but can I ask you again does it surprise you that the person who you assumed would read expert reports in fact in this pretty crucial area of the RHI, he didn’t read any of it?

FOSTER:

Well, I think that if we look back at the submission of the 8th July, and I know you will go into some detail later on that submission, that submission came up on the 8th, sorry 8th of June on a Thursday, at a quarter past twelve, it would have been then taken off the private office system, I don’t know whether it was given to Andrew on Thursday afternoon or the Friday morning, we were then scheduled to have a meeting with Fiona on the Monday, which then turned out to be the Tuesday, so I understand from Andrew’s evidence what he has said over this past couple of days he didn’t ask for a copy of that report but that was over a weekend and we were then having a meeting with Fiona around the issue.

COGHLIN:

All of that is true, he never asked ...

FOSTER:

... on the Tuesday ...

COGHLIN:

... all of that is true, he never asked to see, nor did he read the CEPA 31st of May, the Cepa final of June, or the addendum.

FOSTER:

Yes, I, I can’t answer that, I would have, I think would have expected the final report, the 5th June report, the 31st of May report CEPA 1, as i think it has been referred to, wasn’t read, if it had of been read I think Andrew’s evidence to say that he would have given me advice that was different from the direction of travel that we then took but i have to ...

COGHLIN:

... that is why it is important ...

FOSTER:

I have to take that point.

COGHLIN:

That is why it is important to know that he didn’t read any of it, not even when the second one, June was sent to you, to both of you, he didn’t read that.

FOSTER:

Yes, the second report of course then was available on the website, in terms of the consultations, it was widely available at that time and I take your point in relation to that, but in regards to CEPA 1, it was not attached to the submission as far as I can understand, I take your point about why he didn’t ask when he received the submission, all I am saying to you, em, genuinely is that he received that coming into the weekend and we were having a meeting on the Monday, I can understand why he didn’t ask for that report.

COGHLIN:

He may not have asked for it in time for the Monday but he never asked for it, he never asked to see or read the second one, and he never asked to see or read the addendum, and what I think concerns me is given the novel nature of this scheme, which was undoubtedly going to attract substantial amounts of public money, to find a special advsor, I accept entirely how the ... work, but a special advisor who knows the scheme is so new, so unpredictable, so all of that doesn’t look at any of the reports that the department itself has asked for, from experts, that just seems to me to be perhaps not of the highest standard of governmental practice.

FOSTER:

But I do think it is fair to say that with hindsight when we look now at the submission, the submission is actually different from, ah, the report ...

COGHLIN:

That’s all the more reason to read the report! (slightly laughs, tensely)

FOSTER:

Of course, if we had known that, and we are looking at this with the benefit of hindsight, I take that, but at the time, I didn’t have the report and I know we are going to come on to the meeting of the 14th of June, and what was said around all of that, but it wasn’t attached to the submission that we received on the 8th of June.

COGHLIN:

Thank you.