RHI inquiry: Foster signed ‘blank cheque’ on costs

editorial image

Arlene Foster signed “a blank cheque” by putting her signature to a statement that the RHI scheme was value for money – even though she had not been told what it would cost, the RHI inquiry has been told.

The revelation came yesterday during further probing exchanges with Mrs Foster’s long-standing special advisor (Spad) which provided more insight into how the DUP leader operated as a government minister for almost a decade.

Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster

Dr Andrew Crawford candidly accepted that Mrs Foster’s signature had been little more than a “box-ticking exercise” because legally she had to sign the document in question to authorise officials to proceed with such a significant policy, but she was reliant on her civil servants “to do their job”.

On a number of occasions yesterday, Dr Crawford accepted that he failed to do something which he ought to have done. However, he also frequently blamed officials in Mrs Foster’s then department for lapses and on one occasion accused them of “deliberately misleading” the minister.

In April 2012, Mrs Foster signed a declaration which said: “I have read the Regulatory Impact Assessment and I am satisfied that the benefits justify the costs”, contained within a document known as a ‘Regulatory Impact Assessment’.

However, she had not been told the costs and, even though the statement was made personally by her, she was entirely reliant on her officials’ flawed views.

At the point when the scheme was being designed, paperwork frequently referred to it as a commitment of £25 million – because that was the money to cover the period up to 2015 of a 20-year scheme.

When asked if he had considered how much the department was committing itself to in total, Dr Crawford said that he did not think that he had considered the total cost of the scheme, although he was aware that it was more than the £25 million mentioned in the documentation.

During robust questioning, Dr Crawford was asked whether it was “normal” for the minister to be asked to sign a statement which endorsed a scheme as value for money without being told exactly what it would cost.

The former Spad highlighted that the submission in question did say that a Northern Ireland RHI would deliver the highest renewable heat output and the best value – something which was an inaccurate summary of what the consultants commissioned by the department had found.

However, Dr Keith MacLean, the technical assessor to the inquiry, highlighted that the minister was signing to say that she was personally content with the costs of the scheme and its value for money. He told Mrs Foster’s former advis0r – who remains as a DUP advis0r – that “it seems strange to me” that there was no mention of what those costs were or any explanation of how it was value for money.

Dr Crawford said: “Looking at it back, in hindsight there should have been, and that should have been covered in the covering submission to the RIA.” Referring to a similar document which Mrs Foster had previously signed despite it containing a blank box for the costs, Dr MacLean said that “effectively a blank cheque was being signed off” and asked: “Is this not another example of the minister signing off on something where the number hasn’t been filled in?”

Dr Crawford said: “The number hasn’t been filled in in terms of the submission to the minister but she is aware that it was with the casework committee and that this whole scheme had gone through the casework committee and the department, whose role was to go through the costs and benefit and make sure it was value for money.”

Asked by counsel to the inquiry Joseph Aiken whether it was common that these documents did not give the cost of the proposal, Dr Crawford said he would have expected to have been given that detail either in that document or in the covering submission to the minister.

Dr MacLean then asked: “You’re expecting to be made aware of all of these things. Now, if that was an expectation why would you not expect to be made aware on the face of the document like this about what the total cost is going to be and why would you not, when you don’t see that information, advise the minister not to sign a blank cheque?”

Dr Crawford said: “At that stage, what I’d have been doing would have been relying on the casework committee [of civil servants] and those that were on the committee had an experience and drilling down in casework and making sure that was the case.”

Dr MacLean said: “But why bother going to the minister at all if all you’re going to do is tick a box ‘oh, casework’s looked at it, so it must be OK, so we’ll do it as well’?”

Dr Crawford said it went to be minister because it had to be her who signed off such a significant document.

Dr MacLean asked: “Is that more than a box-ticking exercise?”

Dr Crawford answered candidly: “No, because, you know, it is the minister who has to sign it, but she was relying on the casework committee to do their job and to revert to her if there were any concerns with it.”

Dr MacLean, who has worked at the top of the UK energy industry, said that “she was also relying on you to give her advice and I find it inconceivable in my career that I would ever have put a paper to somebody to sign that they were saying that the costs were justified without having those costs. And equally, I would find it quite inconceivable that I would have signed a document that any of my team brought to me which said ‘I’m signing off that those are justifiable costs’ if I don’t know what the cost is.

“As Mr Aiken is saying, the RIAs from the Westminster departments ... always have somewhere for the numbers to be filled in. I’m really struggling to understand how you can be comfortable, or have been comfortable – even if it was a one-off – not to have had number on the face of the document”.

Dr Crawford said that “unfortunately it was signed off and I didn’t flag it up at the time”.

Dr MacLean interjected to highlight that it was the second time the inquiry had uncovered such a scenario.

Dr Crawford repeated that the document contained the line that the proposed scheme would be best value for money, adding: “When you read that, you do expect that to be accurate.”

Dr MacLean said: “Obviously, the expectations went unfulfilled.”

Highlighting some of what officials did not send to the minister, Dr Crawford replied that “it’s easy to sit here and say that; unfortunately that did not happen”.