Civil servant Fiona Hepper promoted after role in RHI scandal to leave – but silence on any discipline

One of the most senior civil servants criticised by the RHI Inquiry for failures which contributed to the cash for ash scandal is leaving the civil service.

Wednesday, 21st April 2021, 9:03 pm
Fiona Hepper was heavily criticised by the RHI Inquiry

A civil service source told the News Letter that Fiona Hepper – who was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s Energy Division when the scheme was set up in 2012 – will leave the civil service in August.

However, last night the civil service refused to say whether Mrs Hepper, who has been in the civil service since 1986, had been disciplined in any way for her role in the scandal.

Mrs Hepper was promoted after her work on RHI to become one of the most senior officials in the Department of Education responsible for overseeing schools in Northern Ireland.

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The RHI Inquiry found that Ms Hepper “was clearly told” that Stormont may have to pay for RHI if it overspent “and there can be absolutely no doubt” that she was “fully informed” about that fact.

Mrs Hepper said she warned her minister, Arlene Foster, about the unusual way in which RHI was funded and insisted that she did not misleadingly tell the minister that the RHI scheme would produce the most heat at the least cost.

However, she admitted that she could not support that claim with evidence because minutes were not taken of the key meeting with Mrs Foster.

The inquiry found that she probably had misled the minister about a key issue and said it was “unlikely”, based on the evidence, that the funding peril to Stormont’s block grant was “adequately and effectively explained by Ms Hepper to the minister”.

Sir Patrick Coghlin’s report said: “These were points of very considerable importance.”

The inquiry also rejected Mrs Hepper’s denial of the claim that the department was pushing to get an RHI scheme – rather than open-mindedly looking at every option. The report said: “In all of the circumstances the inquiry is satisfied that an RHI scheme was preferred by energy officials by this stage.”

It also found in relation to a warning from Ofgem about the need for cost controls – which Mrs Hepper claimed to have verbally relayed to the minister – that “if the conversation between Ms Hepper and the minister did take place, the inquiry finds that the warning was not highlighted as Ms Hepper maintained.

“It is the view of the inquiry that if such a warning were being raised with the minister it should have been the subject of a careful minute or record ...”

The News Letter asked the Department of Education whether it or Mrs Hepper could confirm whether her departure is linked to the inquiry’s criticism.

We also asked whether any disciplinary proceedings were instigated against Mrs Hepper on foot of the inquiry, and whether those proceedings led to any disciplinary action.

After more than 24 hours, the department eventually responded with one sentence: “Having reached retirement age, Fiona Hepper has taken the decision to retire.”

The department said that it would not be answering the questions about her RHI role, and referred us to the Department of Finance.

That department said that it “will update the Assembly on the RHI disciplinary process in the near future”.

Departmental accounts show that Mrs Hepper is paid a salary of between £90,000 and £95,000, along with a hefty annual pension contribution which in the last financial year amounted to £34,000. The accounts indicate that her pension is now likely to be worth around £1 million.

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