N. Ireland Politics

Foster 'victim of heat scheme witch hunt' says deputy

Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Nigel Dodds gave his backing to Arlene Foster and accused her opponents of undertaking a 'witch-hunt'

Attempts to blame Arlene Foster for a disastrous heat scheme that could cost taxpayers £400m have hit "hysterical levels", says the DUP's deputy leader.

The first minister is under pressure from opponents over her role in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

It was set up to encourage people to use green fuels to produce heat, but serious flaws meant the scheme went far beyond its budget.

DUP MP Nigel Dodds said Mrs Foster's opponents are on a "witch-hunt".

Mrs Foster has faced calls to resign over her role in the scheme.

It was set up in 2012 when she was Stormont's enterprise minister, but it paid out over-generous subsidies that allowed claimants to earn more cash the more fuel they burned.

Mrs Foster was later told about serious flaws in the initiative by a whistleblower, although the concerns were ignored by Deti officials.

She told BBC Spotlight NI: " In 2013, a 'whistleblower' made allegations to me about the operation of the RHI scheme.

"I passed these concerns on to departmental officials to investigate.

"During the PAC (Public Account Committee) evidence session on 9th November, the Permanent Secretary indicated that as Minister my actions in response to the 'whistleblower' were "entirely appropriate".

"It is now obvious that these investigations should have highlighted the failings of the scheme and ameliorative actions should have been taken."

She said civil servants did not inform her of any issues arising from the whistleblower's alert.

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

Mr Dodds said there had been a "quite scurrilous attempt" to blame the first minister for the saga.

He said Mrs Foster is owed an apology, adding that it was wrong to suggest she failed to follow up on the whistleblower's concerns.

An email in 2013 from the woman in question raised "no concerns about RHI", he added.

"It simply asked for a meeting on energy efficiency matters," he said.

"A meeting with officials was facilitated and it was in these subsequent discussions that issues about RHI were conveyed."

He said Mrs Foster did not attend the meetings or hear the whistleblower's concerns, adding that his party leader had "acted entirely appropriately".

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Taxpayers could face a £400m bill over 20 years to cover the RHI scheme's spending commitments

MLAs are set to return to Stormont on Monday for an urgent discussion on the fallout from the fatally flawed scheme.

In a joint statement, the first and deputy first minsters said MLAs would hear "a full statement" from Mrs Foster on the matters of public concern relating to RHI.

"RHI was discussed by the executive today and ministers around the table underlined the seriousness of the issues involved and the importance of restoring public confidence."

The ministers reiterated that "detailed plans are being finalised to significantly reduce the projected losses" to the Northern Ireland budget over the next 20 years.

When asked on BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra whether he had confidence in Mrs Foster's position, Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir did not give a direct answer.

"I am not going to go down the road of making this into a party political football or engage in games," he said.

"The first minister will have her say on Monday."

Earlier on Wednesday, BBC Radio Ulster's The Stephen Nolan Show revealed that she personally fought a decision by another minister to close the scheme.

A senior source she had a "heated conversation" with her DUP colleague Jonathan Bell, the then enterprise minister, over his plan to end the initiative in January.

The scheme then remained open to applications for two weeks.

The DUP said Mr Bell had extended the scheme "following representations, including those from other political parties".

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