RHI Inquiry: Arlene Foster admits there are questions about what her Spad was doing

Arlene Foster’s advisor appears to have had an advanced understanding of some of the key flaws in the RHI scheme and was making suggestions which would not have addressed some of those flaws – yet Mrs Foster said he never told her of the issues.

The DUP leader faced question after question about how her closest aide Andrew Crawford – who was a hand-picked DUP member given a publicly funded salary of about £85,000 a year – had been in repeated contact with another DUP special advisor, Tim Cairns, who says that the contact served to delay cost controls.

Andrew Crawford was Arlene Foster's closest advisor for most of her ministerial career

Andrew Crawford was Arlene Foster's closest advisor for most of her ministerial career

Dr Crawford has denied that allegation.

Emails which the inquiry has obtained under its sweeping powers of compulsion show that from at least summer 2015 Dr Crawford was aware of how easily the scheme could be abused and was fully expecting a huge spike in applications from poultry farmers.

Mrs Foster said that Crawford never told her “at any time” that there was a perverse incentive at the heart of the scheme whereby it paid poultry farmers to heat their poultry houses when they were empty.

She said that Dr Crawford should have told her about the abuse of the scheme and also “probably” about his understanding that there would be a “huge spike” in applications to the scheme because word had spread throughout the industry.

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said: “This is why one would get so concerned about your selection of Spad. It looks as though, throughout the summer, your Spad – who was the Spad for the minister responsible for DFP, which in my limited understanding is the department in charge of public money – he’s having a series of exchanges that involve, for example, waste heat which is taking up public money, he’s making a suggestion that you should have 3,000 hours [for boilers to get the most lucrative tariff] rather than 1,314 in the interests of Moy Park, he suggests setting up a meeting with Moy Park ... all of this is done by an unelected Spad and about which you as the minister have no knowledge.”

Mrs Foster replied: “Yes, but I think in terms of the Moy Park issue, it’s my understanding that he was saying ‘there seems to be a problem because they’re able to run it for a lot higher than they need, and if you reduce it down then that will deal with the issue of fraud. Am I right on that?”

Sir Patrick asked why her Spad had not come back to her and said “this has an impact on public expenditure”.

Mrs Foster said: “Well, I think if Andrew was here he would – and this is not an excuse, and I don’t want it taken as an excuse – but he would say that he thought he was dealing with Annual Managed Expenditure [meaning it was paid for by the Treasury, not Stormont], instead of it coming out of the block grant.

“That’s not an excuse, but I think that’s something he would say.”

Sir Patrick said: “Even if he was, he’s also talking about abuse.” Mrs Foster said: “But I think that’s why he’s making a suggestion to deal with that in terms of policy.”

Sir Patrick replied: “All I’m saying is that here we have an unelected Spad who doesn’t go back to the minister but who assumes the mantle of negotiator with another Spad. And the first thing you know about it is what? In December or later?” Mrs Foster said she first realised in December.

At that point the inquiry’s technical assessor interjected to highlight that contrary to what Mrs Foster had said – that Dr Crawford had made a proposal to deal with abuse of the scheme – that actually Dr Crawford’s proposal was to maintain the generosity of the scheme, to the benefit of Moy Park users, something which would have largely neutered the cost controls.

Referring to Moy Park’s suppliers, Sir Patrick interjected to say: “Who were being subsidised, we now know, by the tariffs.”

Dr MacLean highlighted that if the poultry industry was to continue to get the same RHI money even after cost controls, then “it will make no difference whatsoever to the overspend”.

Mrs Foster said: “Yes, I understand.”

Dr MacLean said that the evidence raised the question “what on earth was your Spad doing in this involvement without your knowledge?”

Mrs Foster said: “I accept that.”