Foster and official in key RHI dispute

One of Arlene Foster’s senior officials has said that she was “up front” with the minister that experts had advised not to proceed with the RHI scheme in the absence of cost controls, the public inquiry into the scandal has been told.

However, the inquiry has been told that there is no written record of that point being put to the then DUP energy minister and that Mrs Foster has said in written evidence that she has “no recollection” of the conversation.

Six months before the RHI scheme launched in 2012, Fiona Hepper was a senior official in Mrs Foster’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the department was warned by Ofgem – which was to run the renewable heat scheme for Stormont – that the absence of any cost controls in the scheme was a key flaw.

Inquiry counsel David Scoffield QC said that Mrs Foster has told the inquiry in writing: “I have no recollection of being clearly informed of the risks of proceeding without cost controls. If this issue was raised to me, I believe that Ofgem’s warnings must have been significantly downplayed.

“I believe I would remember if I had been presented with a critical issue ... particularly if I was asked to take a decision informally without the options being presented in a ministerial submission.”

Ms Hepper had previously said that the issue was discussed with Mrs Foster who was made aware of the risks. Yesterday she said that she had a “clear recollection of the conversation with the minister ... I don’t believe that this was downplayed in any way”.

She added: “I stand by the evidence that I gave. I was up-front in what the issue was with Ofgem ... and the impact that it would have on us moving forward in the timetable ...”

When asked if the minister was told specifically that Ofgem’s recommendation was not to proceed, she said: “Yes, and I did not downplay that.”

Ms Hepper admitted that there had been no formal written ministerial submission on the issue and accepted that with hindsight that ought to have happened with an issue of this magnitude, but blamed time pressure for not having done so. Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said that he found it “very difficult, almost to the point of impossibility, to understand why a clear submission was not made to the departmental minister”.