Northern Ireland

Arlene Foster 'did not ignore' scheme warnings

Arlene Foster Image copyright PA
Image caption Arlene Foster, then enterprise minister, was warned about the scheme in 2013

Arlene Foster "did not ignore" warnings by a whistleblower over an energy scheme that will cost NI taxpayers £400m, the economy minister has said.

Mrs Foster dealt with the Renewable Heat Incentive issue "entirely appropriately", said Simon Hamilton.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has said Mrs Foster should consider her position over the controversy, but Mr Hamilton accused him of "stuntery".

The scheme was meant to encourage users to switch to biomass heating systems.

It was run by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and BBC Spotlight reported that concerns were expressed over the scheme to Mrs Foster in 2013, when she was enterprise minister.

She referred the issue to civil servants but the warnings were not acted on.

The whistleblower outlined serious flaws with the scheme in an email to the department in 2014.

Abuse allegations

The scheme paid out more in subsidies than the fuel cost, meaning users could earn more money by burning more fuel.

The email was not acted on and the scheme continued until it closed earlier this year amid accusations that it was being abused.

Image copyright TCHARA
Image caption The scheme was meant to encourage businesses to move from generating their heat using fossil fuels to more renewable sources like wood

Mr Hamilton said it was "very, very unfair" to claim Mrs Foster had done nothing in regard the whistleblowers' claims.

"They were certainly not ignored," he said.

"If you look at the evidence of the now permanent secretary for the Department of the Economy (formerly DETI) to the Public Accounts Committee on 9 November, he said that Arlene Foster handled the issue of the whistleblower entirely appropriately by taking that on board and by passing that on officials.

"Which is exactly what any minister, anybody in public life should do when somebody comes forward with serious allegations."

Unionist 'stuntery'

Referring to Mr Nesbitt's resignation call, Mr Hamilton said: "I think that Mike, and some others, are more transfixed with the politics of this and are not concerned, don't give two hoots quite frankly, in terms of the implication on the public purse.

"That's what my focus is on, that's what Arlene's focus is on, not some of the stuntery that others will try to perform over the coming days."

Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy said that it would be "helpful" for Mrs Foster, who is currently in China, to step forward and explain what happened to restore "public confidence".

Mr Murphy said his view came from his experience as a minister. In 2011, he was found to have discriminated against a man who applied to become head of NI Water.

"I speak from my own experience of the time when there was a crisis of confidence in how my own department was doing its business.

"I felt the best thing to do was step forward and answer the questions, difficult questions that they were at the time, but step forward and try to restore some public confidence."

He also said that he wanted to know what was "sent back up the chain to the minister (Mrs Foster)" after the whistleblower's claims had been investigated by the department.

Mrs Foster, now the first minister, has not commented on whether she made any effort to follow up on the whistleblower's claims.

She also pointed out that the permanent secretary of the economy department had said she acted "entirely appropriately".

But, she acknowledged that investigations into the claims "should have highlighted the failings of the scheme and actions should have been taken".

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