Arlene Foster and her closest ministerial advisor developed a system of making political comment on Post-it notes which were immediately destroyed, the public inquiry into the RHI scandal has been told.
In what RHI inquiry barrister Joseph Aiken described as “politics by Post-it”, Mrs Foster’s former special adviser (Spad) Andrew Crawford yesterday told the inquiry that the system was jointly developed by himself and the then energy minister.
During revelatory exchanges which set out the inner workings of the DUP leader’s decision-making process over almost 10 years as a minister, Dr Crawford was pressed on a practice which means that the inquiry now cannot know whether some messages about the RHI scheme were immediately destroyed.
The system also means that the messages were never able to be evaluated for release under the Freedom of Information Act, despite it being the case that significant government decisions – even if they are on scraps of paper or other materials – ought to be retained so that a decision can be made about whether they should be released.
The revelation adds to the picture of Stormont secrecy under devolution. The head of the civil service has given evidence that minutes of many ministerial meetings were deliberately not taken due to a desire by the DUP and Sinn Fein for there not to be a record which could be released.
Sinn Fein has rejected that claim and yesterday Dr Crawford also denied that the DUP didn’t want minutes kept.
Dr Crawford, who spent nine years as Mrs Foster’s sole ministerial advisor on a salary of between £70,000 and £86,000, told the inquiry: “Arlene and I had a way of working: if I wanted to speak to her about [a civil service submission] ... I would put a Post-it note on the submission and generally it would be ‘Arlene give me a call’ and that would have stayed on that submission and then when the minister was reviewing it ... I would have got a phone call ‘I’m going through this energy paper; what is it you want to talk about or what are the issues?’.”
He said that those Post-it notes “wouldn’t have been formally recorded in the system”.
In his written statement to the inquiry, Dr Crawford revealed more detail of the system, saying: “If there was any political advice I wished to provide to the minister on the content of the submission I would make a note on a Post-it note and attach that to the submission for the minister’s consideration.
“This system worked for us as the minister could consider my advice alongside the submission to which it related, and come back to me to discuss further if required.”
Mr Aiken asked: “Were those Post-its preserved on the submissions?”
Dr Crawford replied: “No. The Post-its were not preserved, but when I refer to politics there I’m referring to politics probably with a small ‘p’ in terms of managing the process or whatever it happens to be ... no, they were not recorded.”
Mr Aiken said: “Whatever this was that’s written on the Post-it, it would form part of the decision-making of the minister ... maybe what was on the Post-it was a little more elaborate than that, drawing attention to some point – I don’t know, because I haven’t seen any. But is it really the case that they just went into the bin?”
Dr Crawford said: “I think we’re in danger of over-complicating this process. This was purely a way for me to communicate with the minister to give me a call regarding a submission.”
Retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, who is chairing the inquiry, interjected to say: “But there would be no record of that?”
Dr Crawford replied: “No, there would be no record of it.”
Sir Patrick said: “So this is a sophistication of the lack of a record system because although you have a record here, you have another tier that is a removable record? It’s a removable record if it is about politics – either with a small ‘p’ or a big ‘P’.”
Dr Crawford replied that if there was an issue which the minister wanted to raise as a result of the note or conversation she would then have added that to the submission.
Sir Patrick said: “Of course. If she wished to put it in the submission. On the other hand, if she didn’t, the world would not know that her special advisor had raised it and that she had thought about it.
“You talk about over-complicating it ... but from a public point of view it is of considerable importance. We’ve had a debate this morning about the total lack of notes or records of meetings and whether you call it politics with a small ‘p’ or a big ‘P’, this is a further refinement of that – you have a record, something is added to it by you as the special advisor; if the minister wishes to incorporate it, she will; if she doesn’t, she won’t – and no one will ever know what the point was that her special advisor thought worthwhile her considering.”
Dr Crawford said: “I understand, yes. However, I think that was part of my role as advisor to the minister. No, that was not recorded; you’re correct in saying that; there’s no formal note; it does not appear in the system.
“But that was part of the interaction between an advisor advising the minister and the minister either accepting or rejecting that advice.
“It could be ‘you need to be careful – this submission may be tricky to get through the [Assembly] ETI committee’, so that the minister was alert to that and had that in mind say if there was a debate the following week or something like that.”
Sir Patrick said there “could be all sorts of different material in it” but added: “The important point is that now we know; now the public knows; that that’s the way that it was done.”
Mr Aiken asked why there would be a need to destroy a note saying that a decision may be tricky.
Dr Crawford replied: “It is purely the system that I and the minister developed.”
Asked what the “fear is” if it was on record so that it could be revealed to an inquiry or someone else, Dr Crawford said: “I don’t believe there was anything that would be worrying or be concerned about.”
Mr Aiken said it would be concerning if one of the destroyed notes about RHI related to “how a particular interest group or lobby group or business might react to something that you’re reading and you’re seeing that from a political perspective”. Dr Crawford said that never happened.
Mrs Foster will give evidence today.