Controversial former DUP special advisor Stephen Brimstone is facing a bigger rates bill for his home – and potentially could see a fresh investigation of his eligibility for using the non-domestic RHI scheme to heat his home
The news emerged at the RHI Inquiry yesterday where counsel for the inquiry Joseph Aiken said that the rates authorities have now reassessed what Mr Brimstone has always insisted was an “agricultural shed” and decided that it is in fact a domestic building.
Mr Brimstone, who was heavily criticised by a Stormont committee in 2015 over allegations that he ordered a DUP colleague to change her vote in relation to a multi-million pound contract, had previously been given a clean bill of health by Ofgem, which administers the RHI scheme for Stormont.
However, that decision was significantly influenced by evidence that his shed – which was found by an auditor to contain children’s toys and firewood for his home as well as work tools and a tractor – was a non-domestic building.
Alan Brontë, the commissioner of valuation at Land and Property Services, had initially told the inquiry that he could confirm that Mr Brimstone’s building was in fact classified as an agricultural shed.
However, yesterday Mr Aiken informed the inquiry: “As of the 22nd November 2018 ... the Land and Property Services has revised its valuation.
“The inquiry has been made aware that the outbuilding is no longer considered to be an agricultural building, but has been reassessed as a domestic store, thus increasing the rateable value of Mr Brimstone’s property.
“Ofgem are considering that further information in the context of the eligibility under the RHI scheme.”
Yesterday the inquiry also heard how John Jackson, a senior lawyer in Ofgem, advised a colleague not to share the audit of Mr Brimstone’s installation with the police – even though the PSNI was investigating whether there may have been fraud and had asked to see relevant material.
The lawyer was concerned that sharing the information with the police could breach the Data Protection Act.
Sir Patrick described the evidence as “a rather extraordinary development”. Under questioning from Dame Una O’Brien, Ofgem’s barrister, Jason Beer QC, cautioned against the inquiry moving to “draw broad conclusions” about Ofgem’s “attitudes and cultures” on the basis “of a relatively junior lawyer’s emailed advice in one case”.
Mr Beer did accept a series of failings by Ofgem during the life of the scheme. He said that Ofgem should have insisted on changes to how DETI was managing the scheme before agreeing to administer RHI.
Nessa Murnaghan QC for Stormont’s Department for the Economy said the department accepts that it “could have done more and should have done more” and relayed a pledge from the department’s permanent secretary, Noel Lavery, that the same mistakes will not be repeated.