RHI: Spad Brimstone returns to give evidence

Former DUP special adviser (spad) Stephen Brimstone has returned to Stormont for his second day giving evidence to a public inquiry into a botched green energy scheme.

The RHI inquiry is probing why costs for Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive scheme spiralled. The RHI scheme was aimed at encouraging the use of green energy.

Stephen Brimstone at the RHI Inquiry

Stephen Brimstone at the RHI Inquiry

The RHI inquiry is also looking into allegations that some DUP spads attempted to delay the introduction of cost control measures in 2015.

Mr Brimstone served as a spad to DUP ministers in several Northern Ireland governments departments from 2008 to 2015. He successfully applied to the RHI scheme in 2015.

The inquiry heard that in May 2016 the government regulator for gas and electricity markets (Ofgem) received an anonymous complaint about Mr Brimstone’s RHI installation.

It claimed it was fraudulent because it was under the non-domestic section of the scheme, but should have been under the less lucrative domestic section.

Ofgem suspended Mr Brimstone’s payments under the scheme and carried out an audit of his installation.

A query was raised, but Ofgem eventually found no compliance issues and restored Mr Brimstone’s payments

A second complaint about Mr Brimstone’s RHI installation was made in October 2016.

The inquiry heard it was made by Traditional Unionist Voice MLA Jim Allister.

The complaint was sent to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the Northern Ireland Office, Ofgem and Stormont’s Department for the Economy, which was running the scheme.

In December 2016 Mr Brimstone was asked by the BBC’s Nolan Show about a “heated exchange” between Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell over the RHI scheme.

Mr Brimstone was present at the meeting in question, but told the BBC there had not been any heated exchange over the RHI issue.

He told the inquiry on Thursday that while there had been a heated exchange, it was about a business trip to Canada that Mr Bell had just returned from.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin put to Mr Brimstone that he was not giving a “fulsome response” to the BBC.

“I didn’t feel that they needed to know about any other matters that were being discussed at that meeting,” Mr Brimstone responded.

“They were asking about the RHI scheme. I do believe I answered it accurately.”

Pressed further, Mr Brimstone said he felt if he had said any more, it would have “opened up a whole load of other questions”.

Sir Patrick also queried whether Mr Brimstone’s responses were being “carefully monitored” by another DUP spad, Timothy Johnston.

“You wanted to make sure that Timothy Johnston was content with your answers which were to be given to the BBC,” he said.

“In making him content you were answering this question in an untransparent way, in a limited way.”

Mr Brimstone had applied for the non-domestic RHI scheme, which was granted because he said it was also to heat a shed as well as his home.

Inquiry panel member Dame Una O’Brien put it to Mr Brimstone that although this was possible under the RHI rules, was it right? And should he have raised it with the department?

Mr Brimstone responded: “It didn’t... my understanding of the scheme was that up until July 2015 I wasn’t aware there was a differentiation, for example on the tariff between the GB scheme and the Northern Ireland scheme”.

Dame Una pointed out that he was aware there was a domestic scheme with a less generous incentive, saying: “You were very close to the centre of government, you were in a position where you could have potentially pointed this out more explicitly.”

Mr Brimstone paused before answering: “The intent behind the scheme was that Europe had placed particular targets on the UK government to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and Co2 emissions.

“So yes, maybe I should have, but my understanding was at that point that literally this was a good scheme to really encourage people to move away, whatever the situation was, and yes they did introduce a domestic scheme... my view was I couldn’t heat my shed on the domestic scheme... that would have been ineligible.”

Following the second complaint about Mr Brimstone’s RHI installation, another audit was carried out and he received another confirmation that he was entitled to be on the scheme.

Counsel to the inquiry, Joseph Aiken asked Mr Brimstone: “Did you think that would be the end of it?”

Mr Brimstone responded: “(I had) probably given up at that stage thinking whether it was the end or not”.

Mr Brimstone said that his spad colleague Timothy Johnston would also have been aware that he had applied to the RHI scheme.

“I think Timothy knew,” he told the inquiry.

“We were close friends, so I imagine it probably came up as a discussion.”

When asked whether Mr Johnston had told him to stay out of the RHI discussions, Mr Brimstone said: “No”.

Panel member Dr Keith MacLean commented: “It sounds like it goes beyond your judgment. You have told Mrs Foster, you have told Mr Johnston and none of the three of you have come to a conclusion or had a discussion about the need to do something formally and for you to withdraw.”