RHI inquiry told Foster Spad thought overspending could be good
Arlene Foster's special adviser when she was finance minister believed at the time that the RHI scheme was spiralling out of control that if the scheme overspent its budget that could be 'to Northern Ireland's advantage'.
In contemporaneous comments from summer 2015, Andrew Crawford appeared confused as to why others were panicking about the unravelling budgetary situation as more and more applicants piled into the scheme before cost controls were imposed.
The email emerged in evidence presented verbally to the inquiry by counsel to the inquiry, David Scoffield QC, and will fuel the hypothesis that some involved in the setting up of the scheme were influenced by a mistaken belief that it would all be paid directly from the Treasury so was, as one civil servant once described it at a Stormont committee hearing, “what you might say was free money”.
Mr Scoffield read out an email which Mr Crawford had sent to his successor as DUP Spad in Stormont’s Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment,Timothy Cairns.
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The email, the QC said, showed that Mr Crawford – at that point the expert adviser to the finance minister, Mrs Foster – was “seemingly unaware of the potential consequences of an overspend”.
In the email he said: “I am a little confused over what the problem is for the non-domestic scheme. The scheme is being funded from AME [demand-led spending coming directly from the Treasury] and therefore if we go over our 4% target all that will happen is that we will get more than our fair share of the UK pot.
“I would have thought that this is to Northern Ireland’s advantage, bearing in mind that we are likely to opt out of the CFD scheme in a couple of years and may not be able to incentivise renewable generation after this date.
“I suspect that the problem is that we’ve only got a guarantee of funding for the next couple of years and long term we may have to pay for the scheme out of the Northern Ireland block [Stormont’s budget].
“I will check this out with DFP but it’s something you might want to query.”
Mr Crawford said that there was a need to examine tariffs “to stop potential abuse of the scheme” but that Mr Cairns should be careful “not to reduce it too much”.
Mr Scoffield said that the DUP Spad was essentially saying “I don’t know why this is a problem”.
The QC also revealed that Mr Cairns in his evidence has said that Timothy Johnston, one of the two key DUP Spads in the first minister’s office who several weeks ago was appointed to a powerful new role as DUP chief executive, had been involved in discussions about the RHI scheme and that Mr Johnston was “seen to have the highest degree of seniority among DUP Spads”, something Mr Johnston disputed.
Mr Cairns said that he had spoken to Mr Johnston in June 2015, as the scheme was desperately in need of cost controls, and that Mr Johnston “stated that tariff controls would not be introduced and I should [work] with Andrew Crawford at looking into an alternative”.
However, Mr Scoffield said that Mr Johnston had told the inquiry that he had “no role in the amendment of the scheme” and that at no time did he encourage others “to delay, soften or reduce cost controls”.
At another mid-June meeting, Mr Cairns said that Mr Crawford, Mrs Foster and himself had discussed the situation and that Mr Crawford had wanted cost controls delayed for as long as officials would accept.
Mr Crawford confirmed in his written evidence that he has relations who are RHI claimants but said that he “does not recall any contact with them in relation to the RHI scheme”.
However, Mr Scoffield went on to reveal that in summer 2015 Mr Crawford had forwarded an email from Mr Cairns about looming cost controls to Richard Crawford, a relative who had a number of boilers accredited for RHI in September 2015.
Mr Scoffield said that there was “a further email from Andrew Crawford, forwarding Mr Cairns’ information to someone else who we understand could have been a prospective applicant under the scheme” and who it is thought is a relative but who doesn’t seem to have joined the scheme in the end.
Mr Scoffield said that he believed that one of the two documents was a ministerial submission.
The inquiry will continue today. Mrs Foster is not expected to be called as a witness until the very end of the inquiry.