A top civil servant who claimed Arlene Foster had personally prioritised expanding the RHI scheme over the introduction of cost controls has retracted that evidence, saying he now believes she never made that explicit decision.
John Mills, who was head of the energy division in Mrs Foster’s then Stormont department, initially made the claim in a meeting with other civil servants in October 2015, at a point when the scheme had run out of control with calamitous financial consequences, and it was recorded in the minutes of that meeting.
He said then that “it was a ministerial decision to look at [opening] the domestic scheme rather than pushing through the trigger points [cost controls] on non-domestic which would have significantly delayed the implementation of the domestic scheme”.
Mr Mills, a veteran senior civil servant, then repeated that claim in public to an Assembly committee in February 2016, saying “the minister decided that the priority should be on the introduction of the domestic RHI scheme. So resources were devoted to that.”
The non-domestic scheme, for businesses, was introduced in 2012. The smaller domestic one was created in 2014.
Mrs Foster always robustly disputed that she had ever been presented with a choice about either implementing cost controls or expanding the scheme.
On Friday, in an evidence session at the public inquiry into the RHI scandal, Mr Mills entirely withdrew his claim.
Under questioning from David Scoffield QC for the inquiry, Mr Mills said that what he had said was “completely incorrect”.
Explaining why he had said what he had said, Mr Mills told the inquiry that when he arrived in the department in early 2014 he felt that “the course was set” to expand the scheme rather than work on cost controls and he “assumed there was some ministerial authority for it”.
However, he went on: “As part of the inquiry, as I gradually went hunting for what I imagined to be a submission for ministerial approval, I didn’t find one.”
He said that in his view now “there is no evidence of the minister being asked to make that decision”.
Mr Mills accepted that he was “at fault” for not asking to either see a piece of paper in early 2014 showing that the minister had agreed to what was happening or, if that had not happened, then putting a submission to Mrs Foster.
The civil servant also told the inquiry that when he arrived in the department there was no sense that the scheme was a high priority, even within energy division.
He said: “I was not being told that this thing was introduced on a very unsound basis or that this thing could blow up at any moment”.
One key failure in the scheme was that a planned review, which may have uncovered the perverse incentive to waste heat, did not happen in 2014.
In his written evidence, Mr Mills questioned the view that such a review could have been crucial in stopping the scheme running out of control.
He added: “This also ignores the ‘political saleability’ of such action. In 2014 the scheme appeared to be experiencing low uptake, money was being returned to Treasury and the tariff levels were lower than the GB scheme.
“The priority was around expanding the RHI, through implementation of the domestic scheme, expanding the non-domestic scheme, and promoting RHI through advertising.
“In this context, it may be wondered how likely that the following message would have been embraced, ‘this scheme is under-performing and we’re returning money to Treasury so what we really need to do is introduce urgent legislation for cost control measures to dampen down demand’.”
The inquiry will next sit in public in just over two weeks’ time, with Mrs Foster and her former special adviser expected to be called to begin giving their evidence next month.