Foster told about cost controls two years before RHI disaster

Although she received information on the need for RHI cost controls more than two years before the scheme ran out of control, Arlene Foster has said that she does not feel any personal responsibility for the failure to put those controls in place.

In evidence to the public inquiry, Mrs Foster accepted that the issue had been put to her in a written submission in June 2013 but said that the way in which the issue had been brought to her attention by her officials was incomplete and lacked any sense of urgency.

The submission related to a public consultation on expanding the scheme and the need for the power to quickly suspend if the budget came under pressure, but the cost controls never came until the scheme was out of control.

David Scoffield QC for the inquiry yesterday asked Mrs Foster “what level of challenge, if any, you as the minister are bringing to what the officials are proposing to you”.

Mrs Foster said: “It goes back to how stark was the warning about cost control because that was the only point that I think it would have been flagged up as an issue that I should have been taking a lot more cognisance of ... from then on in, if I’d had have had a very stark warning then that should have been in my mind when I was looking at this scheme.”

Mr Scoffield said: “When you read the consultation document itself, did you not consider that to be a pretty stark warning? The department is saying ‘finite budget’, ‘can’t be breached’, ‘we must have this facility available to us’.”

Mrs Foster said: “Yes, but I was also aware that the AME budget [meaning the Treasury would pay the bill, rather than Stormont] was there – I wasn’t receiving any alarm bells from other sources, so in respect of the monitoring rounds [where departments ask for extra money if they have budgetary difficulties] that were coming up to me ... I’m trying to put myself back at that point in time and I was reading the monitoring rounds and there was nothing coming up to me that was causing me any alarm in relation to the RHI scheme.”

In a submission to Mrs Foster in May 2014, the DUP minister was told at the time that Northern Ireland’s RHI was receiving more applications than the equivalent scheme in GB, with the Stormont scheme at that point having more than double Northern Ireland’s 3% share of the UK heat market.

Mrs Foster was told that those figures “suggest that the Northern Ireland RHI could experience a higher volume of applications”.

At the point when she was being told that information, Mrs Foster said that she was aware that officials were effectively delaying cost controls by separating them from the expansion of the scheme to domestic properties.

When asked if all of that information “did or should have made you think ‘now is the time to be looking at these cost controls’, rather than putting them off into the future”, Mrs Foster said: “No it didn’t at the time ... it didn’t raise any alarm bells with me at the time because I was looking at monitoring rounds that were coming up and weren’t raising any issues in terms of scheme overspend.”

It was also suggested to Mrs Foster in May 2014 that it may be appropriate to review subsidy levels, something Mrs Foster said she would have read and “noted” but she said she made no inquiry about it.

She said that she was also being told that the department was continuing to promote the scheme, so she was getting “mixed messages”. She added: “It would have sent me a message: Well, is there really a problem in terms of issues around cost and the issues that you have raised?”

Mr Scoffield put it to Mrs Foster that she had a lot of information pointing to the importance of cost control and asked: “What other element of information should have been brought to you?”

Mrs Foster said: “Well, I don’t think it was laid out for me – the implications and the fact that DECC had decided to bring in these cost controls despite the fact that they had a very slow uptake ... I say as well that the way in which it was described in the submission was certainly downplaying the issue and wasn’t saying that it was something that I would be concerned about ... I know that is all with the benefit of hindsight.”

Mr Scoffield said: “Even leaving aside hindsight ... you leave the department in May 2015. So we have the guts of a two-year period when you’ve been told that ... ‘the department must retain the right to suspend the scheme’ – and in the next 23 months nothing happens. Is that not something that you think, as minister, you bear some responsibility for?”

Mrs Foster replied: “Well, I accept that that period of time did pass, but I wasn’t receiving anything that was causing me alarm and certainly officials were not bringing me anything that would have indicated that I should have stepped in and asked ‘where is this?’.”