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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 this week...

It was a full five months into the RHI Inquiry's public hearings that we finally heard from Arlene Foster and her former adviser Dr Andrew Crawford.

Some of the evidence from them over the past two weeks has been significant and has shone a bright light on the inner workings of government.

Stormont's Parliament Buildings
AFP

Click here to read analysis from BBC News NI politics reporter Jayne McCormack on what we've heard.

That's all from Stormont for a couple of weeks - we'll be back when the inquiry returns on 8 May.

Thanks for following our coverage!

What happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

BBC News NI

DUP leader Arlene Foster defended the continued employment of her former ministerial adviser in a part-time role with her party.

Dr Andrew Crawford (below) twice sent confidential government documents relating to RHI to a cousin before they had been made public.

Dr Andrew Crawford
RHI Inquiry

But he is working for the DUP again, carrying out Brexit research for the party's MEP Diane Dodds.

Mrs Foster said Dr Crawford's conduct had been "inappropriate and disappointing" but she felt he had "learnt his lesson".

'People making judgements on limited knowledge'

Last week, in response to one of the first question put to her at the inquiry, Mrs Foster said she didn't bear any personal responsibility for the RHI catastrophe.

But she told the Northern Ireland Assembly in December 2016 that she accepted "responsibility for the work" of DETI when she was the department's minister.

The RHI Inquiry
RHI Inquiry

Asked about that now, she says it's "very difficult to see how one could be held responsible for things that weren't being communicated" to her.

She says that the assembly was the place where she should've been held accountable about the department's activity but given that it collapsed in January last year it's now for the inquiry to do that.

in her final remark, she also suggests that people outside the inquiry chamber have made "judgements on limited information on what went on".

'Lack of staff and expertise a critical flaw'

Civil servants who set up and ran the RHI scheme "worked long hours" and that gave Mrs Foster cause for concern, she says.

The inquiry has heard time and time again from civil servants - both mid-ranking and senior - that DETI's energy division was stretched in terms of staffing.

Arlene Foster
RHI Inquiry

In her written statement, she identified the "lack of capacity" in the department's energy division as a flaw and she says that wasn't just in terms of numbers of staff but also energy specialism and expertise.

Asked if she did enough to address that, she says she raised it with DETI's permanent secretary and the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and she's not sure what else she could've done.

'No discussion with farmer over scheme's generosity'

In October 2014, Mrs Foster visited businessman Dr John Gilliland's (below) farm at Brook Hall in Londonderry.

At a presentation at one of the agriculture department's stakeholder events a couple of months after Mrs Foster's visit he discussed a biomass boiler and wood chip dryer installed through the RHI scheme at a cost of £36,000 and explained that it had collected £35,000 in subsidies in its firsts year of operation.

Dr John Gilliland
BBC

Mr Scoffield says it appears that Dr Gilliland was aware how the scheme could be operated "to best financial advantage" and how the rewards were potentially "extremely beneficial".

"There was no discussion about any of this, certainly not," says Mrs Foster and if there had been "I would have taken action".

'Can't remember giving certificate to scheme's first claimant'

One of the first companies to notice how lucrative the RHI scheme could be was Sheridan and Hood, which was owned by Brian Hood (below), who gave evidence to the inquiry in February.

He even suggested to Stormont's justice department that if it used the RHI scheme as part of a major emergency service college it was planning it could pocket just under £900,000 over 20 years.

Brian Hood
RHI Inquiry

His company was the first to be accredited on the scheme and he even received a certificate for that from Mrs Foster in March 2013.

The DUP leader can't remember meeting him.

'More than just DUP voters benefitting from RHI'

Beneficiaries of the RHI scheme are wide and varied and across all communities" and are "certainly not just restricted" to DUP supporters, says Mrs Foster.

She makes the comment in response to Mr Scoffield's suggests that "cynical" people would say that if the scheme had been benefitting DUP voters that would be a reason for her "not to blow the whistle".

Wood pellets
PA

The DUP leader says she doesn't accept that assertion.

She also says she isn't aware of any senor figures in the DUP who knew the scheme was being abused.

'RHI debacle a huge regret in my political life'

Many people may find it "impossible to believe" that if Mrs Foster had her "ear to the ground" she "wouldn't have picked up" that the RHI scheme was "more or less too good to be true", suggests Mr Scoffield.

"I can assure you, Mr Scoffield, that I most certainly didn't pick up something of that nature," she responds.

Burning wood pellets
Getty Images

"Why in heaven's name would want to be associated with a scheme that was overcompensating?

She says the scheme is a "huge regret for me in my political life".

'DUP has large support base in farming industry'

Mrs Foster tells the inquiry that she didn't have any inkling about how financially attractive the RHI scheme was.

Mr Scoffield puts it to her that the DUP has a "large support base within the farming community" and she agrees.

Hens in a shed
Reuters

He also suggests her party has "close connections" with the Ulster Farmers' Union and she says it works with the organisation and tries to "advocate on their behalf".

She also agrees that her ministerial adviser would have had close contact with the major poultry producer Moy Park - the inquiry's heard that many of its farmers are beneficiaries on the scheme.

'Agri-sector attracted to scheme but I didn't know why'

In her witness statement, Mrs Foster says that the agricultural sector was "attracted to" the RHI scheme.

Pressed on how she knew that, the DUP leader says she became aware that Stormont's agriculture department was holding events at which the scheme was being promoted but she can't remember how or when that was drawn to her attention.

At those events, some biomass boilers firms were using the now now infamous "cash-for-ash" and "burn-to-earn" leaflets about the scheme to promote their products.

Sir Patrick Coghlin
RHI Inquiry

Mrs Foster can say "hand-on-heart that no-one came" into her constituency office in the rural Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency about the scheme.

Sir Patrick says he finds it "difficult almost to the extent of being impossible to understand" why there was no co-operation between DETI and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Surely, he says, that would have been useful for DETI to have been kept informed about how the scheme was operating on the ground in the agriculture industry.

'Details would've struck me if I'd read letters'

DECC's correspondence to DETI showed that it was "continually reassessing and amending its budget management policy and procedures" for the Great Britain RHI scheme, says Mr Scoffield.

A woman signing a letter
Getty Images

Letters in November 2013, March, June and October 2014 all made mention of updates to its cost control plans - the inquiry barrister says its clear that DECC was "sharing their knowledge" with DETI.

Mrs Foster says she regrets that the importance of the messages weren't flagged up to her by officials because "the level of detail in these letters I think would've struck me if I'd read them in any detail".

'No indication key letter was passed to Foster'

The UK government department running the Great Britain RHI scheme was the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

Its then minister Greg Barker - now Lord Barker (below) - sent regular updates to DETI about developments but he didn't always get a reply.

Lord Barker of Battle
RHI Inquiry

When letters were received by Mrs Foster's private office they would be passed down to DETI's energy division to assess the need for a reply.

Mr Scoffield refers to a letter of of May 2013 in which Mr Barker refers to a review of the subsidies on offer in the GB scheme and actions being taken to deploy cost controls.

DETI's energy division decided that no reply was required and Mr Scoffield says there's no indication that the letter was returned to Mrs Foster - she says she doesn't remember seeing it.

'No-one told me about overspending concerns'

The system by which the RHI scheme was funded was unusual and pretty much all of the civil servants who have appeared before the inquiry have said they had never encountered it before.

In simplest terms, the money would come from the Treasury but it would not cover any overspends.

Sterling banknotes
Getty Images

If the scheme went over-budget, DETI would have to cover that cost and there would effectively be a penalty imposed of about 5% in the case of an overspend.

Asked if she ever considered where money to cover overspendings would come from, Mrs Foster says she didn't because she hadn't been alerted to any concerns that the budget would be breached when she was DETI minister.

Inquiry proceedings resume after lunch

The RHI Inquiry
RHI Inquiry

Mrs Foster's final evidence session is under way - it'll last until 15:45 and we'll keep you across the details.

First topic on the agenda is the funding arrangements for the RHI scheme.

Time for lunch...

That was another busy evidence session with Mrs Foster and we'll be back after the lunch break for more - join us from 14:00.

'Not the maddest assembly question I was ever asked'

Linked to Ms O'Hagan's concerns, Green Party MLA Steven Agnew put a written assembly question to the then enterprise minister asking whether subsidies for biomass disincentivised energy efficiency

Mrs Foster says that didn't raise any concerns with her.

She says she's had some strange questions during her time as a Stormont minister and that was by no means "the maddest question that I've been asked".

A fox
Getty Images

Turns out that her DUP colleague Jim Shannon can lay claim to that title, as Mrs Foster explains that she was environment minister he asked how many foxes there were in Northern Ireland in 2007.

The answer? Well, the DoE didn't keep figures, unfortunately.

'Not acceptable for DUP to release whistleblower email'

It was "not acceptable" for the DUP to release the RHI scheme whistleblower's emails when the scandal erupted in December 2016, says Mrs Foster.

"As party leader I am sorry that Ms O'Hagan got caught up in all of this."

Arlene Foster
RHI Inquiry

She says that the party had been told by Stormont's economy department that Ms O'Hagan was "content for the email to go out" into the public domain.

"Clearly that's not what the case was."

'RHI whistleblower was fed to the wolves'

Mrs O'Hagan was "caught in the political crossfire" at the time of the RHI scandal publicly erupting in December 2016, accepts Mrs Foster.

The DUP's deputy leader Nigel Dodds published one of Ms O'Hagan's emails (below) that month, saying that it "nails the myth" that Mrs Foster "failed to follow up" on concerns that were raised to her.

He said the email "raised no concerns" about the scheme and he claimed it was the "only contact with the minister" - that was, of course, incorrect and Mrs Foster accepts that now.

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Sir Patrick suggests that one possibility for releasing Ms O'Hagan's email is that "she was fed to the wolves".

Ms O'Hagan told the inquiry in February that how her correspondence was handled at the time was a "complete disgrace".

The DUP leader says there was a "storm" about the scandal going on at the time and there was "a lot of firefighting" to "deal with the allegations that were being made".

'None of us are perfect and I never claimed to be so'

Mrs Foster accepts that her actions might have been different if she'd noticed the importance of what was being said in Ms O'Hagan's email.

"If you put the two emails beside each other, as I have done on many occasions since, there's very little difference between the two emails," she says.

The RHI Inquiry
RHI Inquiry

Mr Scoffield asks her if this is another occasion when she thinks "there is something more that I could and should have done". and she says that is with the benefit of hindsight.

"We can always look for the pursuit of perfection but I was dealing with quite a busy time and I thought that the matter was being dealt with," she adds.

None of us are perfect and I never claimed to be so."

'Whistleblower wasn't believed by civil servants'

Mrs Foster says she doesn't believe that the RHI scheme whistleblower (below) was believed when she took her concerns to DETI officials.

Janette O'Hagan
RHI Inquiry

"As a result of that her meeting was not taken as seriously as it should have been," she adds.

She says civil servants "should have investigated whether the claims made by Ms O'Hagan could in fact be the truth" and the minister and her adviser should've been "alerted to that".

'I may have met whistleblower if I'd know of concerns'

DETI civil servants working on the RHI scheme met Ms O'Hagan in October 2013 to discuss her concerns about the initiative.

Asked if she'd noticed the reference to "misuse" of the scheme in the email that was sent to her, Mrs Foster says she "may have" wanted to meet her personally.

Arlene Foster
RHI Inquiry

Officials advised the minister to decline Ms O'Hagan's request for a meeting.

She "got quite a lot of requests for meetings from members of the public" and on "most occasions" it was civil servants who met with them first before there was an opportunity for a meeting the minister.

'RHI paying people to use as much heat as possible'

Mrs O'Hagan, who runs an energy-efficiency firm, sent an email to DETI's general information address in August 2013, asking for a meeting with the minister to discuss how her product could work alongside the "sustainability" of the RHI scheme.

On the same day, he also sent a broadly similar email to Mrs Foster's constituency address, again asking for a meeting and explaining to the minister that the benefits of the scheme meant "many of our potential customers are no longer interested in becoming more efficient".

A third email - again directly to Mrs Foster and again requesting a meeting - was sent about a week later and outlined that the scheme pays claimants "to use them as much [heat] as they can".

An email inbox
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"In fact the incentive to use more is leading to misuse in some cases."

That email wasn't forwarded to DETI officials - Mrs Foster says that's because she believed Mrs O'Hagan's earlier emails was "being dealt with" and she "was getting a response".

She says she didn't pick up on the reference to "misuse" because she "scanned" the email and believed it was similar to the one she'd received the previous week.

'Crisis would've been avoided if whistleblower was listened to'

Mrs Foster is asked question about the so-called whistleblower who tried to draw her attention to critical flaws in the RHI scheme as far back as summer 2013.

Janette O'Hagan sent emails to the then enterprise minister and her department and while she met civil servants to discuss her concerns they were never properly followed up.

Mr Scoffield digs into the Northern Ireland Assembly's Hansard record from December 2016 of what was a day of high drama (below).

MLAs walked out as Arlene Foster started speaking in the assembly in December 2016

Mrs Foster told the assembly that she thanked Ms O'Hagan "for all that she did to try to prevent the calamity that we have fallen into".

"She deserves our higher respect and a sincere apology on behalf of my former department, which should not have dismissed her claims with disbelief.

"Had she been listened to... the crisis would've been avoided."

'I was never told finance reapproval was needed'

Approval was granted by Stormont's finance department for the RHI scheme until the end of March 2015, after which point it would need to be reapproved - it had been intended that that would dovetail with the planned scheme review.

But as we know now, the review didn't happen and reapproval was never sought - Mr Scoffield says the need for it was "simply lost somehow".

DFP logo
DFP

Asked why that happened, Mrs Foster says she was never informed about the stipulation and she agrees that is was a significant failure on the part of the department.

She says the scheme "was not monitored" properly.

'Not reviewing RHI scheme was a failure'

It was a "failing" for DETI not to carry out a crucial planned review of the RHI scheme in 2014, says Mrs Foster.

A review of the initiative was to take place that year but it never happened, meaning that a vital opportunity to spot the ultimately catastrophic flaws in the initiative was missed.

A magnifying glass
Getty Images

The former minister says it was one of the key checks to make sure the scheme was fit for purpose but it wasn't her responsibility to oversee that review - it was an "operational matter" for DETI's energy team to handle.

She "can't say... that it really came into my head" and there was "nothing there to prompt me to think about it either".

'Officials took decisions upon themselves'

The RHI Inquiry
RHI Inquiry

Civil servants "took decision upon themselves" regarding the RHI scheme rather than referring them to Mrs Foster, she says.

She puts that down to "pressure" to try to "move things along" as quickly as possible and adds that she doesn't believe there was any "malicious" intent on the part of officials.

"It would be better to be slower than to not be informed," she says.

'Scheme uptake figures didn't jump off page'

The Northern Ireland Assembly's Enterprise Committee was given updates on the RHI scheme's performance and those had to be approved by the minister.

Comparison of submissions for May and October 2014 indicate that performance targets were being met and exceeded six months earlier than expected.

Burning wood pellets
BBC

Mrs Foster says that wouldn't have "jumped off the page" as its unlikely she would have retained the figures over that period.

And the matter was never flagged up to her by officials.

'Media scrutiny of Crawford hardly surprising'

Dr Crawford has "learnt his lesson" and has "suffered as a result" of media scrutiny over his actions on the RHI scheme.

He resigned from his role as a DUP ministerial adviser in January last year after a senior civil servant named him as the adviser who exerted influence to keep the scheme open, a claim which Dr Crawford denied.

Sir Patrick Coghlin
RHI Inquiry

But inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin says it's "hardly surprising, given what happened, that the media took an interest in it".

Mrs Foster agrees but adds that "one doesn't expect some of the more outrageous commentary around it".

'Crawford has backroom Brexit research role for DUP'

Dr Crawford told the inquiry last week that he still works as an adviser for the DUP on a part-time basis.

Mr Scoffield suggests that might lead the public to conclude that his actions in sharing internal papers without authorisation "hasn't been viewed as something which is particularly serious" by Mrs Foster or her party.

Unon flag bunting above an 'exit' sign
PA

The DUP leader explains that Dr Crawford has a "backroom role" conducting Brexit research for the party's MEP Diane Dodds.

She says his action were "disappointing from my point of view" but she doesn't believe they should "bar a person from having part-time research employment forever and a day".

'I didn't know Crawford shared RH paper with cousin'

Mrs Foster was "surprised" when she found out that her ministerial adviser had shared government papers about the RHI scheme with his poultry-farmer cousin in 2013 and 2015.

Dr Andrew Crawford told the inquiry this week that he shouldn't have done it.

Dr Andrew Crawford
BBC

If she had known about what he'd done, Mrs Foster says she would've referred it to David Sterling, DETI's top civil servant at the time, for an investigation, as well as alerting DUP officers.

Asked if she was aware that he sent government documents with people without authorisation, Mrs Foster says she knows he shared information "with other special advisers".

She says she didn't know that some of Dr Crawford's family members were claimants on the RHI scheme.

'I don't normally sit and watch RHI Inquiry'

Arlene Foster
RHI Inquiry

Disappointingly for us, Mrs Foster "doesn't "normally sit and watch the RHI Inquiry".

She was responding to Mr Scoffield's query about whether or not she'd seen evidence from the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service when he said that his guidance to civil servants is that they "don't say 'no' to a minister".

We'd hoped she was one of our many loyal followers...

'I challenged civil servants who worked for me'

People looking at charts
Getty Images

Civil servants should "challenge" ministers if they think something they are asking for "is not right", says Mrs Foster.

Inquiry panellist Dame Una O'Brien tells that the "challenge function is "mutual".

Mrs Foster says that most civil servants she worked with "would say that I did challenge them - hopefully not in an aggressive way".

'False sense of security that scheme was working'

Mrs Foster says "one wishes I had asked more questions" about the RHI scheme and she admits that it "wasn't a personal priority of mine".

"Doesn't mean I wasn't interested, before somebody writes that tomorrow," she adds.

Arlene Foster
RHI Inquiry

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin points out that it was a "unique scheme" that didn't exist anywhere else in Europe apart from in Great Britain and wonders whether that should "boost it up in your concerns".

The former DETI minister says she had a "false sense of security" that the scheme was "working" in Great Britain and the same would happen in Northern Ireland.

'Difficult to go rooting abut the department'

Back to the matter of cost controls, Mrs Foster says that if there were issues that she should have been made aware of "then they should have been brought up to me".

There was no submission made to her that raise the issue and asking for a decision on it.

Wide shot of inquiry
RHI Inquiry

"It's very difficult for me to go rooting about in the department to find out that isn't being brought up to me," she says.

The term "rooting around" is "a good Fermanaghism", she jokes!

'Should DETI even have had energy responsibility?'

There were questions about whether DETI should've had responsibility to deal with energy matters, says Mrs Foster.

She says that a Stormont committee had suggested that there could be a need for a separate department to deal with it in the way there is at Whitehall.

A man looking at wind turbines
Getty Images

She says the the Department of the Environment (DoE) had responsibility for climate change targets and a question for the inquiry panel will therefore be whether energy powers at Stormont were "located in the correct place".

"Was there a better home for energy division in DoE? It could've been the case at that time?"

'Did Foster check officials were aware of cost controls?'

Most of the DETI officials who'd developed the RHI project left the department over a period of six months from the end of 2012.

Inquiry panel member Dr Keith MacLean asks whether Mrs Foster was aware of the departure of these key officials and if she'd thought of checking with the new staff that they were aware of the cost controls issue.

Dr Keith MacLean
RHI Inquiry

The former minister says that if she started down that road she'd have had to see that each official was properly briefed every time they were moved.

"Frankly, if I did that that's all I would be engaged in as a minister," she says.

'Need for cost controls wasn't live issue'

In September 2014, Mrs Foster gave her approval for the domestic RHI scheme to open as soon as possible later that year.

But there were still no cost controls in the non-domestic initiative - they'd been put forward over a year earlier but had been put off by the department to allow it to get the domestic scheme up and running.

A biomass boiler
BBC

With the domestic scheme then rubber stamped at that point, Mrs Foster is asked whether that was then a "fairly clear prompt" to prioritise the cost controls forward and "get on with them".

The former minister says there was no concern from her officials about the lack of cost controls and it "wasn't a live issue" at the time.

"The issue of const control was not at the forefront of the officials and 'cause of everything else that was going on in the department it wasn't at the forefront of my mind either."ll

Witness Arlene Foster returns to give evidence

Arlene Foster
RHI Inquiry

Back in the Senate chamber for her final day of evidence for now, Arlene Foster will be taking questions from the inquiry's senior counsel David Scoffield QC.

Want to have a glance through Mrs Foster's written witness statement? You'll find it here 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 yesterday 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.

RHI Inquiry: Foster 'never demanded secrecy' as 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.