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Summary

  1. Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry examining botched energy scheme
  2. DUP leader and ex-enterprise minister Arlene Foster returns to inquiry hotseat
  3. Inquiry set up after public concern over scheme's huge projected overspend
  4. Retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Patrick Coghlin chairing inquiry at Stormont
  5. Public evidence sessions expected to last until well into 2018

Live Reporting

By Iain McDowell and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

That's all for now...

Another eye-catching day of evidence at the RHI Inquiry, we're sure you'll agree.

And hopefully more of the same tomorrow when Mrs Foster returns to tell us more - join us from 09:45 for our live coverage.

Stormont's Parliament Buildings
AFP

Now, we're off to escape from the depths of Parliament Buildings and get out into that nice sunny evening.

Goodbye for now!

What happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

BBC News NI

Arlene Foster dismissed as "nonsense" a claim by the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service that notes of ministerial meetings were not taken due to concerns about freedom of information requests.

Arlene Foster says she "never" demanded secrecy from officials when she was a minister

David Sterling had made the claim in evidence to the inquiry last month but Mrs Foster said she didn't accept what he'd said.

The DUP leader said that in all her time as a Stormont minister she had never asked officials not to minute meetings.

'It's for inquiry to decide what I should have done'

Mr Scoffield puts to the ex-minister that the document from June 2013 outlining the future of the RHI scheme said it was important to introduce cost controls.

He says "nothing happens" about it in the "in the next 23 months" to the point when Mrs Foster left the department in May 2015 and he asks is that's something she bears responsibility for.

Mrs Foster
RHI Inquiry

"I accept that that period of time did pass but I wasn't receiving anything that was causing me alarm," she replies.

"I suppose it's for the panel to decide what if anything I should have done in relation to all of that,."

'I wasn't aware of 'cash-for-ash' rumours'

Mrs Foster says she "wasn't aware of rumours going around" in 2014 that the RHI scheme was offering a "cash for ash".

Biomass boiler firms were advertising their products through the scheme at trade fair organised by Stormont's enterprise and agriculture departments and were using slogans such as "burn to earn".

Burning wood pellets
Getty Images

Inquiry Sir Patrick Coghlin asks Mrs Foster what communications she had with then agriculture minister Michelle O'Neill "as to what was actually happening on the street... with 'burn-to-earn', 'cash-for-ash'".

She says she didn't know about that and adds that she was not engaging with farmers about what they were doing in relation to with the scheme.

"I know that may sound rather strange given that I am a Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA, but it's the truth," she adds.

'Mixed messages from officials about RHI'

Mrs Foster claims that she was "getting mixed messages" from her DETI officials about the RHI scheme.

She says that while they told her that uptake on the scheme was beyond what had been anticipated, they also told her that they would be continuing to promote the scheme.

Arlene Foster
RHI Inquiry

"There was still this view that we were continuing to promote the scheme, which would've sent me a message: 'Well, is there really a problem in terms of issues around cost?'"

Therefore, she asks, "why would an alarm bell be ringing" that cost controls would need to be added to the scheme "imminently".

'Don't know when controls were to be introduced'

Mr Scoffield asks a question
RHI Inquiry

Mrs Foster is asked when she thought the cost controls would be introduced to the non-domestic RHI scheme if they would have to wait until after work on the domestic scheme was finished.

"I don't know - there's no point in me saying I do, because I don't," she says, adding that she can't remember if she was ever asked.

'Officials didn't tell me of scheme concerns'

The assembly's Enterprise Committee was told in spring 2014 that the uptake on the RHI scheme could "experience a higher volume of applications" than the similar initiative in Great Britain.

It was also told that demand was more than double what had been anticipated.

Burning wood pellets
BBC

On that basis, Mr Scoffield asks whether Mrs Foster should've considered adding cost controls to the scheme "rather than putting them off into the future".

Mrs Foster says there were no signs of a potential overspend on the scheme at the time and officials "were not saying to me this is something we need to be concerned about".

'Deferral of controls set no alarm bells ringing'

Mrs Foster received a submission from DETI officials in May 2014 in which they said the introduction of the domestic RHI scheme was being prioritised over the changes to the existing non-domestic scheme.

Just to make it clear, it was the non-domestic RHI scheme that turned out to be so problematic.

Alarm bells
Getty Images

The minister was told: "Technical changes to legislation will be addressed once the domestic scheme has been agreed," the minister is told.

She agrees that her understanding would have been that cost controls were being deferred but "there were no alarm bells ringing" as a result of that.

Sorry for the fault...

We're been having some problems bringing you the live commentary.

Please bear with us while we sort out the fault - in the meantime the live stream should be OK.

It turns out that the inquiry is having its own technical difficulties and there's a short adjournment while microphones are sorted out.

'No alarm bells ringing over need for cost controls'

The need to add cost controls to the RHI scheme wasn't "ringing alarm bells" with Mrs Foster in summer and autumn 2013, she says.

She tells the inquiry that DETI officials didn't raise it with her and therefore she didn't consider it.

Sterling cash
Getty Images

Mr Scoffield suggests that it's "another one of those issues" on which Mrs Foster hasn't "done anything wrong but there is perhaps more than you could and should have done" to make sure the issue was at the "top of the agenda".

If she'd been "starkly warned" about the need then it "would've been at the forefront of my mind".

'I wasn't told key energy target would be missed'

The RHI scheme had been set up to help Northern Ireland hit a target of producing 10% of its heat through renewable sources by 2020.

But in report about the scheme in June 2013, drawn up at DETI's request by external energy consultants CEPA, said that by that stage nothing the department could do would allow it to meet the target.

Wood pellets
Getty Images

Mrs Foster says she wasn't made aware of that.

If she'd been told she may have "revised the target" and she explains that it "wasn't unheard of" for Northern Ireland Executive targets to be changed but that usually resulted in "a lot of criticism" from Stormont committees.

Another option, she says, is that she may have considered another way of achieving the 10% target.

'Need for cost controls not highlighted to me'

Adding cost controls to the RHI scheme "wasn't front and centre" in discussions Mrs Foster was having with her civil servants who were working on the initiative in 2012, she says.

She says that "it wasn't something that was a constant source of conversation or discussion".

A biomass boiler
BBC

A number of important documents about the scheme issued in the second half of 2013 don't highlight the issue.

The former DETI minister says that had she been told about the legal risks regarding the scheme in June that year -which was discussed at length before lunch- she would've expected cost controls to have been the first bullet point in those documents and more focus would've been given to them.

I didn't push committee to approve scheme legislation'

Arlene Foster
RHI Inquiry

Mrs Foster says she didn't "push" the Enterprise Committee to approve the subordinate legislation regarding the RHI scheme.

But she says that she made MLAs on the committee aware that if it wasn't given the green light then "the consequences were that we wouldn't have a scheme for another year".

'Ofgem concerns not raised with Stormont committee'

Returning to June 2012, Mr Scoffield explains that it was hoped the regulations regarding the development of the RHI scheme could be approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly's Enterprise Committee before the summer recess that year.

There's nothing to suggest that Ofgem's concerns were raised with the committee.

David Scoffield
RHI Inquiry

Mrs Foster says she wouldn't have expected something like that to be raised with the committee.

If she had decided to take a different route then it would have had to be notified, given that approval for the scheme in relation to EU state aid rules had already been granted, she explains.

But in deciding to go ahead with the scheme as she had been advised then there was no need to bring it to the committee.

'Sterling's evidence particularity contentious and sensitive'

Before returning to his questioning of Mrs Foster, the inquiry's senior counsel David Scoffield QC addresses some issues with the evidence given to the inquiry by Northern Ireland Civil Service boss David Sterling.

Mr Scoffield notes that what Mr Sterling "did or didn't say" about the minuting of ministerial meetings - which was referred to at length before lunch - has proven to be "particularity contentious and sensitive".

Mr Sterling did say that the fact that there was no minute of an important decision by Mrs Foster about the RHI scheme had not been "reflective of the wider practice" in the civil service.

The inquiry barrister says Mr Sterling's evidence should be "looked at in the round".

David Sterling
Press Eye

He also draws the inquiry's attention to report that has emerged in today's Irish News that Mr Sterling told Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O'Neill that he was never asked not to take minutes of meetings by any of the ministers he worked for.

Mrs O'Neill had said Mr Sterling's remarks to the inquiry had ignored "inconvenient facts and lacked objectivity".

Mr Scoffield says the inquiry will assess whether that is "consistent" with what he told the inquiry last month.

Inquiry proceedings resume after lunch

The RHI Inquiry
RHI Inquiry

The afternoon sessions begins and it'll run through until 16:45 - we'll have all the action as DUP leader Arlene Foster faces more questions so stick with us until then.

Time for lunch...

A sandwich
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That was a fairly lively opening session of the day.

Plenty more to come at 14:00 when Mrs Foster and the inquiry team return after the lunch break so do join us then.

'Were officials under pressure to open scheme?'

A biomass boiler
BBC

Mr Scoffield wants to know if officials would have felt under pressure to get the scheme up and running in summer 2012.

Mr Foster has already told the inquiry she didn't want to fall behind the similar RHI scheme that was running in Great Britain and that she had conversations with her team at DETI to get the Northern Ireland initiative open.

She says she would have emphasised this at weekly meetings: "I don't think there was anything wrong with asking officials where we were at with the scheme."

'I'm tougher than most politicians'

Mr Sterling said civil servants had "got into the habit" of not recording minutes of meetings with ministers because the DUP and Sinn Féin were sensitive to criticism.

The DUP leader says she "did smile when I read that".

Arlene Foster
RHI Inquiry

She doesn't believe any politicians are not sensitive to criticism and "given what I came through last year I think I'm tougher than most".

"All politicians know they're going to be criticised on a day and daily basis," she says, adding that "you have to ask if you're in the right job" if you are sensitive to criticism.

'I never ordered secrecy to hide information from public'

Mrs Foster insists she "never gave a direction" for officials not to take minutes of meetings with her in order to prevent the public from seeing what was happening in her department.

Northern Ireland's most senior civil servant Mr Sterling admitted to the inquiry that meetings were not minuted in order to frustrate freedom of information requests.

A boardroom
Getty Images

But Mrs Foster says the RHI scheme was not a "contentious" project with political rivals so she doesn't think Mr Sterling's view is "tenable".

She points to "considerable commentary" in the media on the back of Mr Sterling's comments and says his view is "not the case and I couldn't be clearer on that".

'Quite shocking that notes were not taken'

It is "quite shocking" to suggest ministers ordered that minutes of meetings involving them should not be taken, says Mrs Foster.

David Sterling (below), the head of Northern Ireland Civil Service, has told the inquiry that the "common view" of senior officials across the Northern Ireland Executive departments was that the "good practice" of note-taking at meetings with ministers had "lapsed".

David Sterling
RHI Inquiry

Mrs Foster says she wasn't aware of that, she doesn't believe her fellow ministers were either and she would've expected her decisions "to have been recorded somewhere".

It's one thing to say minutes were not being made about who said what, she says, but "it's quite a different thing to say that we stopped recording ministerial decisions".

"Not once did I tell officials not to take minutes," she adds.

'Making conversation up is risky hostage to fortune'

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin returns to the "basic issue, which is did this happen or did it not happen".

He explains that DETI's energy boss Mrs Hepper has told the inquiry that it was raised with the department's second most senior official David Thomson, who can remember the discussion about the scheme's legal risks.

Sir Patrick Coghlin
RHI Inquiry

Sir Patrick says: "If Fiona Hepper was making it up that the conversation with you took place," he tells Mrs Foster, "that seems a pretty risky hostage to fortune that she would've had to face Mr Thomson who might've said: 'Well, what did the minister say?'

"That sees to me quite a potent factor in deciding whether or not come form of communication took place."

Mrs Foster reiterates that if the call did take place the issue "must've been significantly played down for me not to have reacted in the way that I think I would've reacted".

'I wasn't told of GB plan to add cost controls'

A plan by the UK government department that was running the Great Britain RHI scheme to add cost controls to its initiative was not drawn to Mrs Foster's attention, she says.

In March 2012, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) proposed a temporary suspension of its scheme if it was thought the there was a risk of an overspend.

Wood pellets
PA

In a document outlining the plan, DECC said the cost control was needed to ensure the "long-term future of the RHI" and keep its spending under control.

Uptake was low at the stage, he acknowledged, but the budget protection measure considered as a fallback in case the demand later took off.

Mrs Foster says she would remember if she'd been made aware of the plan because it was "quite a significant issue, I have to say" and it was not provided to her in a ministerial submission.

'Legal warning must've been significantly downplayed'

In her witness statement, Mrs Foster says that if she'd been told of Ofgem's warning about the legal risks of the RHI scheme they must've been" significantly downplayed".

When that was put to Mrs Hepper in February, she said she had a clear memory of the meeting and didn't "believe it was downplayed in any way".

The RHI Inquiry
RHI Inquiry

Asked now for her reaction to Mrs Hepper's evidence, Mrs Foster says the official seems to have a "very clear memory" of the discussion but not whether it was a phonecall or a meeting.

If it had been a meeting it would have been recorded in her electronic diary "and it's not".

'Foster was content to open scheme as planned'

Fiona Hepper
RHI Inquiry

Mrs Hepper (above) has told the inquiry that she "sought a word with the minister" regarding Ofgem's legal warning about the RHI scheme and it was most likely to have been a phonecall.

She said she "outlined the detail of the issue" to Mrs Foster and they discussed "the consequences" of stopping the scheme's progress to amend the scheme.

But she says the minister was "content" that the scheme would be opened as planned and the changes could wait until later.

'I'd remember if I'd been told of legal warning'

Mrs Foster says that if she had discussed the "stark" warning from Ofgem about the legal risks with the RHI scheme she would've remembered it.

"This was a very big deal and I have absolutely no recollection of having a discussion with Mrs Hepper either on the telephone or in person."

Two women in a meeting
Getty Images

She says that if it did take place she "wasn't warned in stark terms that I had to make a decision as to whether to proceed or not with the scheme".

"I certainly would recall that - this was a scheme that was about to go live."

She adds that if she'd been told about it she'd have then talked to her adviser Dr Crawford about it because "it was not a decision... I would've taken on my own" but she can't remember any discussion with him either.

'I didn't ask officials to proceed with flawed scheme'

In her evidence, DETI's energy boss Fiona Hepper says Ofgem's advice about the legal risks with the RHI scheme was relayed to the minister.

But Mrs Foster says she never received the warnings and didn't ask officials to proceed with a project that was "inherently flawed".

Arlene Foster
RHI Inquiry

She tells the inquiry she would have expected to have been told about the alerts because "this was a pretty fundamental warning".

The former minister says her diary shows no evidence of any meeting taking place with Mrs Hepper regarding the matter.

'No memory of ordering scheme to open quickly'

Lawyers for Ofgem - the organisation administrating the RHI scheme - warned DETI in June 2012 that there were legal risks with the initiative's regulations and they advised that the department should hold off on opening it until those were amended.

But DETI told Ofgem that the scheme couldn't be delayed because there was a "commitment" with the minister that the scheme had to open by the end of September that year.

A biomass boiler
BBC

DETI's energy boss Fiona Hepper - who conveyed that message to Ofgem - told the inquiry she was given that direction "in discussions" with Mrs Foster.

Asked about that, Mrs Foster says she has "no recollection" that she ordered the scheme to open by the end of September.

She says the energy industry had been asking question about when the scheme would be up and running but she insists that there was no "aggressive" pressure on her to open it quickly.

'I was misled by officials but can't say it was deliberate'

Arlene Foster
RH Inquiry

Mrs Foster says it's not for her to say whether officials deliberately misled her but she had nevertheless been misled "in a particular direction".

"It would be wrong for me to say that [it was deliberate] when I don't know what the motivations were," she adds.

'I cant understand why we didn't get cost information'

Mrs Foster's ministerial adviser told the inquiry on Monday that he and the minister were "misled" by civil servants in relation to the cost of the RHI scheme because information in financial assessments hadn't been fully relayed to them.

Dr Andrew Crawford (below) also suggested that officials had done that deliberately.

Dr Andrew Crawford
RHI Inquiry

Mrs Foster says she wouldn't use the term "misled".

"We weren't given the information and I can't quite understand why we weren't given the information, but I can't attribute why because I simply don't know," she says.

'No training for ministers on how to manage public money'

A poerson using a calculator
Getty Images

Asked if there was any guidance or training given to Stormont ministers on the public expenditure rules, Mrs Foster says minsters get a first-day brief but there is no training in managing public money.

She says that "would be very helpful" to ministers "after this whole sorry story".

'Were you able to make fully informed decision?'

The RHI Inquiry
RHI Inquiry

Mrs Foster is asked if she agrees that she wasn't in a position to make a "fully informed and objective assessment" about the costs and benefits of the RHI scheme.

She says she had assurances from the Treasury that the full costs of the similar RHI scheme in Great Britain would be covered.

"I took it that that was going to be the same case with the Northern Ireland scheme as well, albeit that I didn't have a clear enumerated idea of what that would be," she adds.

'I didn't write a blank cheque for RHI scheme'

Mrs Foster rejects the suggestion that she signed a "blank cheque" for the RHI scheme.

She says that officials should've given her more information about the costs of the initiative.

A cheque being signed
Getty Images

"I did read the information that was give to me, I took that information at face value," she tells the inquiry, adding: "I don't accept that it was a blank cheque at that time."

But inquiry panellist Dr Keith MacLean says that even a rough assumption on Mrs Foster's part on the basis of the figures she did get would've led her to realise that the cost would be at least "a quarter-of-a-billion pounds".

He says the fact that the Treasury was going to cover the spend "doesn't mean that it's good value or that it balances out the benefits".

'I didn't know what scheme's overall cost would be'

In April 2012, Mrs Foster signed off on a declaration that she was satisfied that the benefits of the RHI scheme justified the costs.

Asked about what she understood the costs to be at that time, she tells the inquiry that she believed it was £25m over four years.

£20 notes
Getty Images

But she accepts that she didn't know that the overall cost would run to hundreds of millions of pounds in subsides over the 20-year lifetime of the scheme.

She adds, though, that she had confidence from her officials that the Treasury would cover whatever that total would be.

'Not my job to check officials' homework'

It is "difficult to understand" why a proposed monitoring board for the RHI scheme was never set up, says Mrs Foster.

The administrator for the scheme agreed with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) that a joint panel would be established to help keep an eye on the initiative, scrutinising and controlling its operation, costs and uptake.

A magnifying glass
Getty Images

But it was never set up, even Mrs Foster was informed that it would be.

She says she would have expected it to be put in place but she "cannot understand" why that didn't happen.

"I don't accept the narrative that says I should've been checking the homework of officials to make sure things happened."

Witness Arlene Foster returns to give evidence

She's already taken the oath, so it's straight into the questions for Arlene Foster.

The inquiry's senior counsel David Scoffield QC kicks off the day's questions.

Arlene Foster
RHI Inquiry

He clears up some issues around Mrs Foster's newly-discovered diary from June 2011 and then turns to the scheme's regulatory impact assessment of April 2012.

You can findMrs Foster's written statement on the inquiry's website.

Why is Arlene Foster at the RHI Inquiry?

Mrs Foster was the minister at Stormont's Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when it set up the RHI scheme in 2012 and in that role she signed off on the project.

A key question for the RHI Inquiry panel will be whether or not she was aware of key information regarding the scheme when she approved it.

The RHI Inquiry
Pacemaker

When the scale of the scandal emerged in December 2016, there were widespread calls for her to resign to allow an investigation to be carried out into what went wrong.

She refused and has consistently denied any wrongdoing in relation to the scheme.

What happened last time Foster was at RHI Inquiry?

BBC News NI

The RHI Inquiry panel
Pacemaker

The judge chairing the inquiry suggested to Arlene Foster on Friday that she seemed to be heading up a "dysfunctional department" when the RHI scheme was being set up.

Sir Patrick Coghlin said it appeared "incontrovertible" that her trust in two key people she had relied on had been "completely unfulfilled".

What happened yesterday at the RHI Inquiry?

BBC News NI

A former DUP ministerial adviser told the inquiry he did not send a confidential RHI scheme document to his poultry farmer cousin in order to advantage him.

Dr Andrew Crawford apologised for sending the consultation document, which was still in draft form and was not signed off by the minister Arlene Foster.

Dr Andrew Crawford says he was not "in the habit" of "leaking" government papers

He accepted he should not have done it.

But Dr Crawford said the intention was not to help his family get into a scheme which was "too good to be true".

What is the RHI Inquiry?

BBC News NI

An independent inquiry into the RHI scandal was established in January last year by the then finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.

He ordered it in the wake of the huge public concern and what was then a developing political crisis surrounding the scheme.

The RHI Inquiry began in November and Sir Patrick Coghlin (below), a retired Court of Appeal judge, is its chair and has been given full control over how it will operate.

Sir Patrick Coghlin
Pacemaker

It will look at:

  • the design and introduction of the RHI scheme
  • the scheme's initial operation, administration, promotion and supervision
  • the introduction of revised subsidies and a usage cap for new scheme claimants in 2015
  • the scheme's closure

For more information on the RHI Inquiry, you can read our handy Q&A.