N. Ireland Politics

Renewable Heat Incentive scheme: Arlene Foster 'may be questioned' in Stormont inquiry

Arlene Foster Image copyright PA
Image caption Political opponents and journalists are carrying out a "hound Foster campaign", a DUP colleague said

A Stormont inquiry may call First Minister Arlene Foster to be questioned over her role in a flawed energy scheme that could cost the public purse £400m.

The assembly's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is investigating the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

The scheme was set up in 2012 by a department under Mrs Foster's watch, but serious weaknesses meant it went vastly over-budget.

The first minister has said she has "no difficulty" in answering questions.

The PAC is to meet on Thursday to consider calling Mrs Foster and special advisers to appear before its inquiry, a proposal made by SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan.

Christopher Stalford, a MLA in Mrs Foster's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), said she was "absolutely right to say that she will go in front of the relevant committees and give answers there and in the house in terms of this affair".

Renewable Heat Incentive scheme in numbers

  • 1,946 applications were approved under the non-domestic RHI scheme - a 98% approval rate
  • 984 were received in just three months - September to 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 of the 300 installations inspected
  • 14 of those fell into the most serious category where fraud was suspected
  • Payments to five of these 14 sites have been suspended

Drawn up by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti), the intent of the RHI scheme was to encourage businesses and other non-domestic users to switch to heating systems that use renewable fuels.

But the subsidies it offered were greater than the cost of the fuels, meaning users could legitimately earn more cash the more fuel they burned.

A whistleblower raised concerns about the scheme with Mrs Foster during her time as enterprise minister, but the concerns were ignored by Deti officials.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister told BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback that Mrs Foster had "presided over, produced and is responsible for the fiasco that has flowed" from the scheme.

Image copyright Tchara
Image caption The scheme effectively allowed claimants to earn more money the more fuel they burned

He described it as "squander made in Stormont", adding that the first minister "utterly lacks credibility" on the issue.

"She's the one who made the mess - she won't apologise, she won't admit it's a mess when it patently is," he added.

Why did RHI applications rocket in 10 weeks?

When the spike in applications for the ill-fated Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) took place the minister responsible was mostly away from his desk.

Jonathan Bell had been removed from office by the DUP as part of the rolling resignation scheme in response to a Stormont crisis.

Read more of Political Correspondent Gareth Gordon's analysis.

But Mr Stalford said: "Arlene Foster could make every day the Twelfth of July and Jim Allister would still complain about it."

He accused Mr Allister, other politicians opposing the DUP and journalists of carrying out a "hound Foster campaign".

"I think a lot of those people that are making demands in terms of the first minister attending relevant committees seem to have made their minds up already," he added.

"Is this actually about scrutiny or accountability, or is there politics at play?"

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