Jonathan Bell insists he was across detail - but has limited recall of events

David Scoffield QC questioning Jonathan Bell
David Scoffield QC questioning Jonathan Bell

Jonathan Bell yesterday firmly rejected that he was a minister who was not across the detail of what was going on in the department or who failed to read ministerial submissions.

Mr Bell said it was “a fallacy” for Mr Cairns to say that he often didn’t read ministerial submissions which went to him, instead relying on Mr Cairns to do that level of work.

Mr Bell’s former private secretary has also said that he did not always read his submissions.

In vain, David Scoffield QC repeatedly attempted to pin Mr Bell down on basic details such as the dates when he alleges certain incidents.

Mr Bell was repeatedly pressed about the meeting of August 24, 2015, where he says he was first asked to take a decision about RHI cost controls.

Mr Scoffield and the inquiry panel asked him why he had been content to make a decision about delaying cost controls at that meeting without ever having seen the ministerial submission – which Mr Bell’s Spad said he discussed with him in July – setting out the problem and which he says at that point had not yet been given to him.

Mr Bell said he was given a verbal outline of the issue and was told that the only way to address the issue was if he consented to a four-week delay.

“I agreed to it on the basis that, it’s not that I wanted it, and not on the basis of a substantial discussion of figures and what a four-week delay might mean or whatever; I was satisfied that officials were content that they could live within those parameters and we were actioning something that needed actioned.”

Sir Patrick Coghlin asked: “As the minister, did it occur to you to ask ‘why am I being asked to extend this, because I don’t know why it needs to be extended?’”.

Mr Bell said that in the run-up to the meeting someone had verbally told him something about the issue but was unclear when exactly that was or who it was who told him.

Sir Patrick said it was difficult to understand why civil servants who had prepared a written submission would not have referred to that submission at the meeting.