Northern Ireland

Renewable Heat Incentive scheme: Eastwood calls on first minister to explain involvement

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Colum Eastwood said Mrs Foster 'needs to come in front of the public affairs committee and explain every single thing that happened'

The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, has called on the first minister to appear before a Stormont committee to explain her involvement in a renewable heat initiative.

Arlene Foster oversaw the scheme while she was enterprise minister.

The scheme, which was meant to encourage users to switch to biomass heating systems, could end up costing the taxpayer more than £400m.

Arlene Foster, who is currently in China, said she would not quit.

She told UTV News she "did all that was appropriate in the circumstances".

Renewable heating scheme in numbers

1,946 applications were approved under the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive scheme - a 98% approval rate.

984 of them were received in just three months - September, October and November 2015 - after officials announced plans to cut the subsidy but before the change took effect.

The assembly's Public Accounts Committee was told that a subsequent independent audit had found issues at half the 300 installations inspected.

14 of these fell into the most serious category where fraud was suspected.

Payments to five of these 14 sites have been suspended.

"I referred it to a senior official and they took it forward and it has been acknowledged indeed by the permanent secretary that I did all that was appropriate in the circumstances," she said.

The scheme was run by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).

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.

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

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

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.

Mr Eastwood said: "Arlene Foster needs to come in front of the public accounts committee and explain every single thing that happened.

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

"And let's see who's accountable, let's see if we do have an accountable government in Northern Ireland or let's see if we continue to have a more secret and less transparent government that we've seen in the past few months."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has said Mrs Foster should consider her position over the controversy.

Image caption Economy Minister Simon Hamilton defended the first ministers handling of the scheme

"I want Arlene Foster to consider her position. The current status quo is not sufficient," he said.

"The minister must come back and explain what happened after she referred this case to her permanent secretary."

On Wednesday, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton defended the first ministers handling of the scheme and said Mrs Foster "did not ignore" warnings by a whistleblower.

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