RHI Inquiry: New email between DUP Spad and ‘free money’ civil servant emerges

John Mills, pictured giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry earlier this year, sent the email to Andrew Crawford in October 2015
John Mills, pictured giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry earlier this year, sent the email to Andrew Crawford in October 2015

A senior civil servant who once likened RHI funding to “free money” sent an email to Arlene Foster’s special advisor which appears to show that he had a similar attitude at the point where the scheme was running out of control.

John Mills, the head of the energy division in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), was in contact with Mrs Foster’s Spad Andrew Crawford in the summer of 2015.

It has been alleged that Dr Crawford was in that period working behind the scenes to delay cost controls on the over-budget scheme, something which he denies.

Yesterday the inquiry referred to an email which Dr Crawford received from Mr Mills in October 2015 – about a month from the point at which cost controls would belatedly be introduced.

The email alluded to a then belief shared by both men that the scheme was entirely funded from the Treasury. Another email which Dr Crawford sent to a DUP colleague shows that the Spad felt it would be beneficial to over-spend on the scheme because Stormont wasn’t paying for it.

It was unusual for civil servants to contact political advisors in other departments, although Mr Mills and Dr Crawford had worked together up until just a few months earlier when Dr Crawford had been the DETI Spad.

In an email to Mr Mills, Dr Crawford had asked him whether DETI was still on track for implementing cost controls in early November.

Mr Mills responded to the DUP Spad: “More or less on the legislation. Still fighting with your officials on the funding.

“They will end up forcing the closure of the scheme – and it’s not even DEL [paid for out of Stormont’s budget] – at this rate.”

Mr Mills’ annoyance with Department of Finance officials appears to have been around the questions which they were asking about a scheme which at that point had been incurring irregular spend – a major crisis in the world of government accounting – for six months.

Yesterday one of the Department of Finance’s most senior officials, head of supply Emer Morelli, told the RHI Inquiry that she was unaware of that interaction between the Spad in her then department and one of the key figures involved in the scheme.

When asked if she would have expected Dr Crawford – who was in her department – to have spoken to her about the issue, she said: “I think it’s sufficiently odd that he may have raised it, but he may also just have disregarded it – I don’t know.”

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin asked why she did not think Dr Crawford had gone back to their then minister, Mrs Foster, or the permanent secretary and said “what are you fighting about?”

She said: “I don’t know.”

Ms Morelli added that when she first saw the email during the inquiry process “I was quite taken aback because in my view we were working very, very closely with DETI ... fighting with officials on funding was never in my purview”.

Sir Patrick put it to her that the documentation suggested “these are dysfunctional departments”.

Ms Morelli said: “I can’t comment. It would be unusual, from my understanding of the process ... if there was a significant issue it would be escalated up through DETI to the right levels in our department. I don’t know why that was happening.”

The inquiry also heard that DETI only sent the business case – which set out why the scheme should be changed as it proposed – to the Department of Finance in October, a month after it had announced publicly how it would be changing the scheme.

Ms Morelli said that was “very odd” and that it seemed clear to her that DETI was planning to press ahead with its proposals for the scheme regardless of finance officials’ views.