The lobbyist son of the then first minister of Northern Ireland received preferential treatment by Stormont because of who his father is, a former DUP Spad has said.
At the RHI inquiry yesterday Arlene Foster’s former special advisor (Spad) Andrew Crawford was revealed to have sent a highly confidential government legal letter and then a confidential Whitehall consultation document to Peter Robinson’s son Gareth – at least one of which was destined for a major corporate client.
The revelation came on a day where Dr Crawford – Mrs Foster’s key advisor for the best part of a decade – came under relentless pressure to explain a host of his actions or inactions and where his explanations led at points to exasperated questioning from an inquiry panel which was audibly frustrated by some of his answers.
Mr Robinson, a former DUP councillor who runs Verbatim Communications, threatened to sue the News Letter three years ago after we revealed that he was working for two energy firms and asked whether he was lobbying a DUP department to pursue policies favourable to those firms.
In April, it was revealed that Dr Crawford – who was paid £85,000 of taxpayers’ money to act as a temporary civil servant – sent confidential government material which warned that the lucrative ‘cash for ash’ phase of the RHI scheme was coming to an end.
Having initially claimed on that occasion that passing information to his family was a rare aberration, the inquiry confronted him with material just recently recovered from his old email account which proves that time after time he forwarded internal government material either to family members, friends or commercial interests.
But the Gareth Robinson material is particularly striking because of the suggestion that his requests on behalf of paying customers were treated uniquely because his father was the first minister.
On March 20 2015, Dr Crawford forwarded an email to Gareth Robinson following a verbal discussion about two of his major renewable energy clients – Gaelectric and Lightsource.
Dr Crawford said he met two senior figures from the company as a result of Mr Robinson’s lobbying efforts.
The document attached to the email was a Whitehall public consultation about UK-wide changes to the energy market and it was not due to be published for three more days, having been sent to Stormont in confidence.
Mr Robinson asked in response to the document: “Is this for Richard or Patrick?”, a reference to Richard Green from Lightsource and Patrick McClughan from Gaelectric, to which Dr Crawford replied: “It’s for Richard.”
Under questioning at the inquiry, Dr Crawford explained that he was concerned that “Northern Ireland companies may miss out” on the consultation because they may be unaware of it.
However, company records show that although both companies operate in Northern Ireland, Gaelectric is headquartered in Dublin and Lightsource is run from London.
Barrister Joseph Aiken asked Dr Crawford: “What’s the benefit to you or [to the department] in being seen to benefit the commercial clients of Verbatim Communications, or whoever it is?”
He replied: “There was no advantage for me or the department bar my ability to build up a relationship with those people so that I could get a two-way flow of information to help me make decisions.”
The inquiry’s technical assessor, Dr Keith MacLean, asked: “Dr Crawford, are you saying in order to get the information [from those firms], you had to breach confidentiality?” The DUP man replied: “No, I’m not ... I should not have done it.”
Dame Una O’Brien, a former senior Whitehall civil servant, said that by “at best, bending the rules”, Dr Crawford had given preferential treatment to the firms and had showed “you are prepared to work outside the rules by making documents available in this way”.
The inquiry heard of a second occasion, on February 10 2014, when Dr Crawford forwarded to Mr Robinson an email which had attached to it a privileged legal document related to the department’s judicial review of another Stormont department in relation to the potential for a John Lewis store at Sprucefield.
Dr Crawford said he did not have “a clear recollection of the sequence of events” but he suspected that Mr Robinson had asked for the timeline for the legal case, which was contained in the body of the email.
It was put to Dr Crawford that he could have forwarded the email but deleted the legally sensitive document attached. He accepted that but added: “I appreciate that’s not what happens here and I can only assume it was clumsy on my behalf – it’s something I shouldn’t have done. Why I done [sic] it or what sequence of events, I’m not aware.”
He went on: “I don’t know; I can’t answer, but I may have been asked to send him information through – from, for example, Richard Bullick or Peter Robinson. I can’t answer that. I find it strange that I sent the information through to him.”
Mr Aiken asked: “Why would [they] want you to send information to someone outside government?”
Dr Crawford replied: “I can’t recall the discussions that I had with Gareth on the particular issue. Obviously, Gareth was Peter’s son and because of that I tended to respond to his queries probably quicker than I may have responded to some other PR companies’ queries.”
He insisted that he had not “consciously” forwarded on the privileged document.