The next item of business is a motion signed by 30 Members under section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in relation to the exclusion of the First Minister from office. The motion for exclusion of a Minister under section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 must relate to the specific terms of that section. Any amendments that take the motion outside of those terms will be inadmissible. I have received legal advice from officials that the amendment proposed by Sinn Féin was incompatible with the requirements of section 30 of the 1998 Act and, as such, was inadmissible.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to three hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. The First Minister will have 30 minutes, and all other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. At the start of the debate, I want to note that the motion has attracted the signatures of a wide range of parties. Whilst there is a three-hour time limit to the debate, I want to make Members aware that I intend to use my discretion to ensure that as many Members as is possible are heard from each party represented in the House. I advise Members that the vote on the motion will be on a cross-community basis.
I beg to move
That this Assembly, in accordance with section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, resolves that the First Minister no longer enjoys the confidence of the Assembly and that she be excluded from holding office as a Minister or junior Minister for a period of six months because of her failure to observe the terms of paragraph (g) of the Pledge of Office and the first paragraph of the ministerial code of conduct, in that she failed to observe the highest standards of propriety and regularity in relation to the stewardship of public funds surrounding the renewable heat incentive scheme.
The SDLP brings this motion before the House in the full awareness of just how serious a moment this is for our local politics. As we attempt to claw back the £400 million and more that may be lost to our local taxpayers, let us also act to claw back the fading threads of confidence in these institutions. As we draw towards the end of 2016, let us today act to redeem and restore some faith in the public service, because the common and the collective good remains worth fighting for. In that context, the SDLP very much welcomes the cross-party support the motion has received. There is a reason for that unity, and the DUP Members of the House would do well to take heed of it.
Since entering into public life as a councillor and as an MLA, I have never seen our public more engaged and angry about a single issue. I would hazard a guess that, as each of us walked around the streets of our constituencies this weekend, MLAs from across the Chamber were hearing that same disgust. Our community is united in anger. Let it be recognised here today that it is an anger that the public have every right to hold.
The last number of months —
The last number of months has seen a damaging pattern to our politics: the cloud hanging over the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) deal; the inaction on Brexit; the structure of the social investment fund (SIF); and the continued funding and appeasement of a UDA boss. Amongst the many uncertainties of this last political period, there is one thing we can all say for sure: there is no fresh start here.
The scandal of the non-domestic renewable heating scheme is by far the biggest imprint on that damaging pattern. This is the biggest public finance scandal ever to hit these institutions. As this scandal has unfolded, it has suited some to try to muddy the waters, but we must not be distracted. This scandal must not be reduced to a psychodrama between the Member from Strangford and the now First Minister. It must not be reduced to being about just a falling out between former friends or revised to tell only a story of a split in one political party. It is so much bigger than that.
So far, digging into this scandal has uncovered staggering incompetence. Digging deeper has the potential to uncover corruption. Therefore, let us be precise and forensic about the information that is still left unanswered.
The best place to start is always at the beginning, and whether the First Minister likes it or not, this scandal begins with her. The RHI scheme was deliberately changed from the GB model. The question still remains as to why that happened. When the scheme was drawn up in Northern Ireland, why were some of the GB regulations copied and included and why were some not? In particular, why was section 9 of the GB regulations not included, a section that would have established cost controls for the entire scheme? Did the First Minister advise or take advice on the inclusion of such cost controls?
Move on to personal warnings received by the First Minister. We have now lost count of how many times the account and response of the DUP to the whistle-blower has changed. This morning's revelations add to the impression that the First Minister was aware of a lot more than the jot and tittle of this scheme. Did she deal with other whistle-blowers in precisely the same fashion as she dealt with this lady?
Move forward to 2015. When will we get the names of the 984 applicants to this scheme between September and November 2015? Did the First Minister advocate for the scheme and on what scale? The same question applies to her party colleagues and their staff. When did Mr Stephen Brimstone make his application?
Move on to the role of special advisers. Under what direction and under whose control do DUP special advisers work? Are DUP politicians collectively responsible to DUP special advisers, or is it the other way round? In addition to departmental files, will the DUP publish all its internal correspondence regarding the RHI scheme?
The questions are many and detailed. For two weeks now, confusion has been met with contradiction. My party is clear that it will now require a full, public, judge-led inquiry to get to the full truth. It is only right and reasonable, therefore, that the First Minister, having failed to take the opportunity to step aside, is excluded from office whilst this investigation takes place. Let it be in the hands of the person tasked with leading the public inquiry to determine whether the First Minister is fit to resume office.
I note that the Member for Strangford has been removed from his position by the DUP pending an investigation. Surely the First Minister should follow the same logic and accept the same fate. The continuation in office will further bring deadlock to an already failing Executive.
Today, Members were expecting to scrutinise the draft Budget from the Finance Minister, yet we meet to discuss the career of one individual. During the week, there was confusion about whether an Executive Office press release was actually a DUP press release. Today, we are informed that the First Minister is speaking without the authority of her joint office. All of this is because the DUP leader will not do the decent and dignified thing and step aside. We cannot go on like this.
The longer that the First Minister clings on, the more that her credibility will fade. Let me assure the First Minister that Christmas will not save her.
Let me now turn briefly to the First Minister's coalition partner, which, given its position, will play an important role in today's proceedings. I welcome that Sinn Féin has moved on to similar ground as the opposition parties. I acknowledge that it has come a distance over the past two weeks and has struggled to come to a position. I genuinely urge Sinn Féin Members, having travelled this far, to come a little further. Let them now support our motion and exclude the First Minister until a full investigation takes place. In doing so, let them follow the advice of someone whom they might respect, who spoke not so long ago on a similar scandal. He said:
"People have seen through this because citizens are not stupid. They have seen through the patronising responses and insulting remarks. The actions of the Government in this Chamber in failing to be straight with the Opposition or with citizens is damaging faith in the political system."
He goes on to say that a credible Government cannot continue to:
"evade questions and duck and dodge their responsibilities", which:
"merely expose this Government's arrogance and incompetence."
Those are the words of Mr Gerry Adams supporting a motion of no confidence in the Dáil in 2014. They would be wise to avoid a partition in their principles.
Mr Speaker, 2016 has been a strange and serious year for politics. Even those who tune in to current affairs only occasionally will have noticed a change in its frequency and tone. If 2016 has been a bad year for losing musical greats, it has been an even worse year for politics. Too often in the past year, public service has been opportunistically downgraded and demeaned in the mind of the public. As we face into 2017, let us begin to change that narrative. First Minister, redeem some faith in the notion that public service is beyond the selfish needs of any one individual. Redeem some faith in these institutions and restore some dignity in your office and in our politics. Think beyond yourself and beyond your party. First Minister, step aside now.
Of course, they will deal not with the facts of the RHI scheme but with a totally doomed motion. It is doomed because of what votes they need, and I will come to that in a minute.
I am proud to say that I serve this country as First Minister not at the pleasure of my political opponents but because of the mandate from the people of Northern Ireland in an election less than eight months ago. I am delighted to say that, in this country at least, it is still the people and not the politicians who get to decide who should be in office. It is certainly not the responsibility of those politicians who were soundly rejected at the polls such a short time ago to decide who should hold the highest ministerial office, however much they wish to do so.
The RHI debacle deserves to be fully investigated and understood, and that is what will happen. We need to know exactly what went wrong and how we are going to fix it. What does not serve the people of Northern Ireland well is people seeking to score cheap political points. I know that Christmas is coming, but the attempt to turn the issue into a political pantomime is a diversion and a distraction from the important work that is going on. This motion turns what has been a very serious issue into low farce. It is a kamikaze motion with no prospect of success, and the signatories to it know that. It will not shine any light on the truth, nor does it seek to find solutions. Instead, it will cruelly expose the impotence of those parties that shirk their responsibilities rather than face up to the difficult choices that a Government face. The motion exposes and confirms what has already been clear over the past few weeks: that this is nothing short of an attempt at a constitutional coup d'état. I have to say that it is a coup d'état more worthy of a 'Carry On' film.
I know that, if the election had been held amongst just newspaper pundits and elements in the BBC, this party would not be where it is today. If they had their way, a few of us would be scattered across the Back Benches — probably sitting where Mr Allister and Mr Agnew are today, though perhaps with a few more seats — but it is the people and not the media who decide.
What people want is to get the problem sorted, not more arguing, bickering and stunts of walking out when they could have heard the facts from politicians here at Stormont. They want to know what our priority is to reduce projected costs — not claw back but reduce those costs — not to claim a political scalp. That is what this is all about: trying to claim a political scalp. I am here. I will stay here to fulfil the trust that has been placed in me and to make sure that the whole mess is being cleared up. That is what my priority is in all this. I deeply regret the fact that the scheme was flawed from the outset. I regret the fact that it has placed a projected burden on our public finances, which we now seek to bring under control, but I totally and absolutely reject any notion that I have ever done anything other than act with the highest levels of integrity from the start of the process.
As should be the process, I have made a statement to the Chamber and laid down the facts of the scheme. My opponents were so interested that they walked out. So confident were they in their arguments that they could not be bothered to attend the debate or to ask me a question — just one question — on the record. They are very brave in front of a camera but cowards in the Chamber.
That is because they are not interested in a discussion let alone a debate: all that they are interested in is political distraction. You know why they want a distraction. You know why they are desperate for a political distraction. It is because they have no purpose. They have no plan or policies for Northern Ireland, unlike the DUP, which has a plan to create more jobs by bringing in more business investment and to ensure that we get the best deal for Northern Ireland.
Unlike the DUP, they have no plan to strengthen our schools and hospitals. We do, and we are not going to be distracted by these games.
My political life is about bringing people together. I am proud to see that I have done it again today by getting the UUP, the SDLP and Sinn Féin to work together. It shows what they can achieve when they put their selfish interest first. Imagine what could be achieved if they put the people of Northern Ireland first. Imagine what this Chamber could achieve if they harnessed that energy and made the people of Northern Ireland their priority instead of themselves. I will always put the people of Northern Ireland first. I am proud to do so.
What I want to do this afternoon, however, is to analyse the motion before us, to consider the statutory provisions on which it is based, to respond to the central allegations, to consider the role of the media in all this and, finally, to make it clear that this party will use the mandate of last May to defeat the motion. The motion is, of course, premature. It is inappropriate and has no evidence to justify it. Above all else, the one aspect of the motion that most cruelly exposes the motivation of those who have sought it is the timing. No one could possibly conclude that all the evidence has been weighed and considered and that action should follow. What we have here is trial by television, not by the appropriate authorities. What we have here are facts being disregarded in a fevered quest to build my political gallows. What we have here is nothing more than shameful political opportunism. The central charges against me in the debate today have not even been considered by the PAC, or any independent investigation for that matter, let alone decided on. This rush to judgement not only exposes the political motivations of my opponents but raises serious questions about the fitness of those who sit on the PAC to be impartial. The debate is a fact-free zone. There is no evidence, no adverse findings and nothing that could even resemble a basis for the motion being tabled, never mind passed.
Until very recently, there were constant calls from across the political spectrum for me to give evidence to the PAC. It almost seemed like every news outlet, bulletin and press release featured that demand. I would not be surprised if Donald Trump even tweeted it. Well, guess what? I am ready and willing to go to the PAC. I have made that very clear. Suddenly, by magic, that is not good enough for Mike, Colum and Naomi; they want me out before I get near the PAC and before I am asked one single question or even open my mouth. So much for due process. So much for justice. So much for the facts. I ask this question in all sincerity of those who tabled the motion: would you tolerate for one second action being taken against a constituent on the basis of utterly unsubstantiated allegations? I sincerely hope that you would not, and I expect that your constituent would feel the same.
There are basic rules in the Assembly that my critics are trying to flout — rules at the heart of power-sharing. MLAs designated as nationalist or other cannot gang up and kick out the elected leader of unionism. Those rules work the other way, too. How many sermons on power-sharing have we heard over the years from the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party?
Yet, here they are trying to bring back majority rule. I am sure that Mrs Long will get her chance to speak, as she always does.
Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. When I look around the Chamber at those who have supported the motion, all I can see are individuals hungry for publicity and profile, jockeying for position as they desperately seek the media spotlight. I see Mr Eastwood and his party searching for political relevance after losing more seats at the election and opting out of government. I see Mr Nesbitt, the man who led the Ulster Unionist Party to its worst result in over 100 years, fighting for revenge against the party that humiliated him and defied his prediction at the polls. No matter what Mr Nesbitt says, let me say one thing: I will not be asking him to step aside as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Then, of course, there is Naomi Long of the Alliance Party. In the past, for the most part, the Alliance Party behaved in a more considered and responsible way than this, but, of course, that was under a different leader. No doubt, we will hear at some point today that this decision is related to the flags protest —
No, I will not.
— or to costing her party a place in the Executive last May.
Then, of course, there is Mr Allister. Well, in fairness to Mr Allister, there has never been an exclusion motion that he was not prepared to sign, so we can let him off this time.
I turn now to the detail of the motion. It is an exclusion motion in accordance with section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This is the most severe power on the statute book for dealing with political parties or Ministers. Section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act was introduced as a way of dealing with those who were linked to ongoing paramilitary and criminal activity after the Belfast Agreement but were otherwise legally entitled to a place in government. Indeed, in 2003, the provision was bolstered by a power to exclude for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, following a report from the IMC. This provision has never been regarded as a substitute for the normal accountability arrangements of Ministers to the electorate or to the Assembly; it was intended as a long stop when the normal processes did not or could not work.
At Westminster, when the House of Commons passes a vote of no confidence in the Government, the convention is that it will precipitate a general election. When the House loses confidence in a Minister, the expectation is that the Minister will resign. Nowhere in the Northern Ireland Act are there powers of exclusion, for the very reason that the Northern Ireland powers were drafted to deal with the particular circumstances of the links between political parties and the paramilitary groups at the time of the Belfast Agreement.
Members on this side of the House will recall that, when the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP had the power to exclude Sinn Féin when IRA activity continued in the first term of the Assembly, they sat on their hands and did nothing. On any proper analysis, section 30 is appropriate only where there is a proven link to paramilitary or criminal activity, or where there is wrongdoing on the part of Ministers and the normal democratic processes do not suffice. It is not for MLAs to arrogate to themselves the role of appeal chamber to decisions of the electorate.
Absent some allegation of corruption, fraud or criminal activity, even the outrageous and outlandish allegations of the Opposition fall far short of what would justify a proper use of section 30. Even the use of section 30 represents a massive overreach by those who have tabled it. The fact that it has been tabled before the PAC or any other body has investigated the matter, never mind reached any conclusions or recommendations, make it an even more inappropriate device for this debate. Section 30 was not drafted for these circumstances, but the real truth for those who tabled the motion is that it is a motion designed to fail.
I turn now to the charges that have been made in this debate and in the motion on the Order Paper. The allegation is that I:
"failed to observe the highest standards of propriety and regularity in relation to the stewardship of public funds surrounding the renewable heat incentive scheme."
One can only assume that this relates to the period when I was Minister responsible for the RHI scheme and not some guilt by association with what happened when I left the Department. We should be absolutely clear that the charge that is being made is not that I made some error of judgement in relation to the policy. The charge that has been made today is that I did not observe the highest standards of propriety and regularity. This is a remarkably serious and grave allegation to make. It is one that implies not merely an error of judgement but some malign intent or involvement. Of course, there is not a scintilla of evidence to justify such a charge. This claim goes far beyond any allegations made by the BBC, or even by Mr Bell for that matter, about my conduct as Minister for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
When it is published in full, the record will show that, at all points, I followed the professional advice of the officials, the experts and the consultants. I approved the recommendations that were made to me.
I referred the correspondence of the concerned citizen to my departmental officials. At no point was any recommendation made to me to introduce cost control measures. In fact, far from it; I was being told that we needed to increase, not decrease, the take-up of the scheme. Although the Opposition do not want to hear it — they clearly did not want to hear it or they would have been in the Chamber earlier — the simple fact remains that at no time during my tenure in the Department was I warned that there could be an overspend. As Minister, I, of course, accept responsibility for the work of the Department, but the charge that I did not observe the highest standards of propriety and regularity is completely and totally baseless. If I am to be blamed for anything, it is accepting the professional advice that I was offered.
However, in this regard, I am not alone. I did not introduce this scheme as an unilateral ministerial decision. I brought proposals for this scheme to the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee to be considered and scrutinised. It did not simply nod through the regulations but, as the Chairman, Mr Patsy McGlone, told us, and it bears repeating:
"The Committee scrutiny of the development of the renewable heat incentive has been considerable and reflects the importance and long-term nature of the proposals. Before supporting the RHI, the Committee sought and received assurances on incentive and tariff levels, banding levels, incentives for domestic consumers, payments to participants and support levels for the renewable heat premium payment scheme." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 78, p299, col 2].
In fact, as it was recorded at the time, the introduction of the regulations was delayed because the Committee took so long to scrutinise the scheme. Lest anyone thinks that concerns were raised that the tariff was too high, exactly the opposite was the case, as was so eloquently highlighted by Mr McGlone, who said:
"Some concerns have been expressed that the tariffs for the renewable heat incentive are lower than those in Britain because the tariff is generated against a counterfactual position of heating oil." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 78, p299, col 1].
If there were errors on my part, they were errors that were specifically endorsed by the Committee after "considerable" scrutiny. Indeed, not only did the Committee consider and approve this scheme, but so too did the entire Assembly. In fact, one of the other signatories of today's motion, Mrs Overend, gave her specific support to the scheme and said:
"Having had the opportunity to scrutinise the regulations in Committee, I am happy to support the Minister in bringing them forward."
So she too accepts that she had scrutinised the regulations that contained the vital flaw in the scheme. She also went on to address the issue of why we opted for a Northern Ireland-specific scheme and not the GB scheme. She said:
"Given that there are differences between renewable heat markets in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it was important that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment undertook its own research and economic appraisal of the situation here. That research, followed by a public consultation, has undoubtedly been invaluable in informing decision-makers on the best way forward for a renewable heat incentive scheme for Northern Ireland." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 78, p300, col 1].
In fairness to Mrs Overend and Mr McGlone, they were not alone. Everyone who spoke in the debate supported the regulations. There was not a single voice in opposition. Today, this motion is seeking to exclude me from office for a policy and a scheme that received not just Committee support but the unanimous support of the Assembly. This morning, I dealt with the issue of the concerned citizen. I do not intend to repeat that now, but I followed the appropriate steps in passing it to officials. In short, the motion seeks to castigate me for a scheme that was not just based on following the advice of officials but received the unanimous support of the Committee, after detailed scrutiny, and the endorsement of the Assembly.
As I said, it amounts to nothing more than a 'Carry On' coup d'état.
None of the other allegations made in recent days relate to my period as ETI Minister, nor are they particularly germane today. However, I want to reiterate the fact that I had no role whatever in the decision of the ETI Minister to introduce cost controls to the scheme in 2015. My involvement and that of the deputy First Minister in 2016 was to bring forward the closure of the scheme, not to delay it. The publication by the Department for the Economy of the note for the record of the allegations concerning claims made about the leaking of government records speaks for itself.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the motion. For almost two weeks, I have listened daily to lies presented as facts, the truth distorted out of all recognition and a public narrative created and relentlessly pursued that bears no relationship to reality. Now, I am not surprised that the Opposition, in their desperation, seek to exploit the situation for cynical political reasons, but I expect better of publicly funded broadcasters who fail to present the facts in a fair and impartial way. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. From the start of this process, I have not sought to hide from my responsibilities, the House or even the media. I have been out and about, fulfilling my engagements and meeting people from all walks of life who have offered me warm words of encouragement and support. I made a full and detailed statement this morning; I gave a lengthy interview to the BBC last week; and here I am, this afternoon, responding to the debate.
This does not elevate our political process. It does nothing to solve the many problems and challenges that we face. It reduces our politics to a soap opera and the conduct of the House to little better than a television drama — and not a very believable one at that. Our people deserve better. Last May, I asked the people of Northern Ireland for a mandate: I got it. I do not intend to run away from my responsibilities. After this speech, I will have further meetings about how we find solutions, while others will talk to a meaningless motion in the House and, no doubt, will get coverage on the news tonight. I hope they enjoy it, because — do you know what? — their credibility will not be helped one iota by what goes on here today. However we got into this position I will make sure that we put it right. It is time for solutions, not for the nonsense we are about to hear from the Opposition. As I said this morning, we will implement a plan; we will get the costs down —
Not for the first time.
We will get the costs down. We will have a full, independent investigation of where all this went wrong. Today, using the mandate we earned last May, we will defeat the motion.
Let me conclude by saying that I remain as committed today as I was on the day that I was elected First Minister to fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith.
When an exclusion motion or vote of no confidence is put before the House, the debate is essentially about leadership. To my mind, the test of leadership is not whether we have a perfect society in which problems do not arise and mistakes are not made; the test of true leadership is in dealing with those problems, in facing up to responsibilities when problems arise and in finding solutions.
Today, the Assembly had two different routes that it could take. There were two pieces of business on the Order Paper. The first came from the First Minister. Her statement detailed the facts of how we got to where we are on the RHI. It outlined support for a fully independent inquiry. Indeed, let me make this clear in case there is any degree of confusion: it is not a DUP or a Sinn Féin inquiry. We support an entirely independent inquiry that will bring its own verdict on events so far and, most importantly, because this is what the electorate is looking for, identify potential actions to reduce the cost as we move ahead and remove the burden from future taxpayers. We saw the first steps —
No. The Member will have his chance. Indeed, the Member had the chance to question the First Minister earlier but abrogated that responsibility.
The First Minister took the responsible leadership role today by outlining that. People want to see a process in which the costs are reduced so that they are not a burden in the future. By contrast, the position taken by the opposition parties is a politically motivated stunt targeted at an individual. It offers no solutions as to how we move forward. The motion does not even reference an inquiry.
What we have seen over the past couple of weeks from the Opposition is an opportunistic and cynically driven approach to the issue. We have heard numerous members of the Opposition writing off the £400 million as if it has already been spent. They have dealt with the issue with a level of glee that shows that they hoped that it was a much greater figure, because that would cause a greater degree of political difficulty. It is a case of basking entirely in hindsight. As has been highlighted, throughout all the consultations and in all the debates in the Assembly and the Committee structures, not a single voice from the main opposition parties said, "Hold on a moment. This has been got wrong. We need to put a cap on this. We need to bring this to a swifter conclusion". On the contrary, when the RHI scheme was brought to a close earlier this year, the opposition parties trooped in one by one to oppose its closure, complaining about the impact that that would have on jobs and the local economy. They did not want to close it; rather, they wanted it extended.
At the heart of this is the issue of the election. We have been told recently, "Vote Mike, get Colum" or, "Vote Colum, get Mike". Let me make it very clear —
That shows the kind of mature attitude that is being taken here.
People had the opportunity this year to vote Mike and get Colum or vote Colum and get Mike. That is possibly the most unattractive two-for-one offer that has ever been made in the history of marketing.
People said no. I give the leader of the SDLP some praise for what he has done on this issue. He has at least moved on. Some time ago, he was carrying the coffin of a dissident terrorist. He has now moved on to carrying the Ulster Unionist Party on his back, which has trooped in loyally behind him.
We are not going to have trial by television and radio. We are not going to have trial by innuendo and smear, trial by revenge or trial by jealousy. On the matter of prejudging the issues, members of the Public Accounts Committee, who are supposed to give an objective view on this, have already decided that they have given their objective view. They have produced a verdict before it is reached.
I have known Arlene Foster since she was 18. I am probably the person in the Chamber who —
It is slightly embarrassing that we have this unedifying shambles taking place. It is not just about the revelations around a scheme that was very badly conceived and handled. Even if a good scheme can be put together to try to reduce that, it has already cost a substantial amount to the public purse. That was compounded by the television programme in which the First Minister and a former senior Minister in her Executive hurled accusations at each other. There were revelations and accusations around special advisers and the role that they played in the scheme.
Last night, then, we got on to the selective release of papers from the Department for the Economy by the Minister, involving civil servants in an internal DUP squabble as to who was right and who was wrong. Those issues are now being refuted by the former Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Then we had this morning's behaviour, when the joint nature of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was challenged and, in trying to allow business to go ahead, the Office of the Speaker was significantly challenged. All of this has been a very unedifying spectacle, which has added to public disquiet about the handling of the RHI scheme and the revelations and allegations around it. I have to say to the party on the opposite Benches that, as it continues, it may well circle the wagons thinking that that is the best method of defence. However, when you are in a hole, you need to stop digging.
None of this — the circling of the wagons or the robust defence — answers the questions that the public want answered. It does not deal with the broad range of issues that the public want answers on, and neither does this motion. By its proposer's admission, it is about the career of one individual: I think that I have quoted him correctly when I say that. This is about the career of one individual. If only this was about the career of one individual, it would, perhaps, be much easier to deal with. The reality is that this is about much more than the career of one individual. The motion does not deal with the investigation that is required, nor does it analyse the role of civil servants in relation to the matter. It does not deal with the former Minister, Jonathan Bell, and the allegations that he has made, and it does not deal with the role of the First Minister in relation to that and that of the special advisers who, it is alleged, were improperly involved in extending the length of the scheme when there was advice that it should have been closed down. The motion does not deal, as the proposer quite rightly said, with the applicants and the need to understand who benefited from the scheme. That will also cast up some answers about the operation of the scheme.
What we need is a proposition to the Assembly that deals with all those things and is not about a short-term fix or a quick headbutt for somebody followed by a walkout, saying that we have done our job, but a proposition that deals with the issues and with the very necessary and robust proposition to put a scheme in place that undoes the financial catastrophe that the RHI scheme has foisted on our public finances. This motion does not do anything for that. We asked the proposers and seconders of the motion to put it to one side and join the motion that we have submitted for the new year, which is not just about the career of one individual but which deals with the entirety of what needs to be examined and the fact that we need to get to the bottom of it all.
Unfortunately, it seems that a day in the sun, or in the spotlight, is more important than getting to the heart of these issues.
Does the Member accept that the motion, which I ask him to speak to, is the first step in looking at where that £400 million went, where it is agreed to go and what the principles are behind it?
The tone of this debate is not fitting given that the public are rightly angry. The debate so far is an absolute disgrace to the House.
In fairness, in answer to the Member, it is not the first step; it is actually the last step. The public want to see a proper investigation into the entirety of the issue, not the career of one individual. The motion does not deal at all with such an investigation, nor does it deal with financial recovery or the broad range of people whom I mentioned, including the First Minister in her role, the former ETI Minister, the DUP special advisers and the civil servants. It does not deal with any of that.
I thank the Member very much for giving way. He and his party had every opportunity to put down an amendment to the motion, but you put one down that could not possibly be accepted. Who is playing stunt politics? There was an opportunity to put all those things into the motion but you missed your opportunity.
It is very interesting that the Member and his Opposition colleagues spent this morning challenging the authority of the Speaker on this matter. However, when he refuses an amendment from my party, it is entirely correct. You cannot have your cake and eat it. The motion does not get to the heart of what we are trying to do. It is simply about an opportunity to grandstand in the Chamber.
What this institution needs and what people are asking for is a proper, fully fledged —
It is important that we listen —
— listen — to the angry and increasingly frustrated voices of our constituents, many of whom have directly expressed their incomprehension at how the scheme, which was available to just 5,000 recipients, giving them a potential tax-free payout of around £275,000, could have happened, notwithstanding the fact that it costs us over £85,000 a day and every day until this is sorted out. However, I must express a much wider concern: a malaise about our Government, who have a disregard for the people of Northern Ireland and are focused on the retention of power for the sake of power itself. They are a Government who hold the process of good order. responsibility and accountability in contempt. Whether it is the Economy Minister obfuscating about US airline routes, the Agriculture Minister denying that she has had discussions about waste incinerators, only to quote, 60 seconds later, from the same letter in the House, the Communities Minister telling councils to prepare to revive regeneration powers that then remain the same or the abject failure to address the existential challenge to Northern Ireland from Brexit, the arrogance of power with little or no accountability is beyond breathtaking — it approaches institutionalised corruption.
Added to that, we have a prison system in meltdown, with the suicide rate running at nearly one per week. We have an Executive who seem to believe that it is perfectly all right for paramilitaries to lead social enterprises, even when the Chief Constable categorically makes it clear that illegal activities are being perpetrated by members of that organisation — an organisation whose accounts have to be qualified because the files caught fire. It seems that the incineration of combustible material will be a metaphor for what will, hopefully, be the DUP leader's short term in office. Her epitaph will be less about leading Northern Ireland into its second century than helping to keep Ferraris warm — this is just since July.
As to the question of standing aside, we need to refer in greater detail to the period when the DUP leader was the ETI Minister; indeed, until recently, she and her party were at pains to explain that her wealth of experience as Northern Ireland's longest-serving Minister made her ideally suited for this highest office. Yet, she then explained that neither she nor any of the copious SpAds — more, I might add, than in Scotland and Wales combined — were, to use her language, "over the detail" of one of the most potentially expensive energy schemes anywhere.
Ministers do policy, and when that policy goes wrong in a normal government, they do the decent thing or are sacked. The SpAds are sacked, and, under normal rules, the ex-Minister's SpAds and culpable civil servants are banned for several years from employment in the sector covered by their Minister. Not here. Any mapping out of the golden circle here will see the same names connected to Ministers and parties regularly appearing on quangos, often receiving up to £22,000 a year for their trouble. Little wonder that a very senior US official compared Northern Ireland to the former East Germany but with better golf clubs.
We need to go back to 2012 when our then Minister decided — remarkably so, when many in her party deny that climate change is even happening — on a renewables policy for Northern Ireland. There was even a very clear model, one that the United Kingdom would largely pay for and that had safeguards attached and a regulator that would ensure its smooth running. It gave an incentive to industry and supported reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Why, then, did DETI or, more appositely, the leader of the DUP decide not to follow it? Did she have some form of intuitive insight that the rest of the UK renewables sector did not have? Somehow, the GB scheme has managed to remain largely on budget and on delivery. It is also noteworthy that GB is not commissioning renewable energy at twice the capacity of the grid to support it or charging small-scale producers three times the going rate for connection charges.
Again, those are all perverse policy decisions that deserve answers.
Why do we have a failure of energy policy, real concerns over brownouts or worse and some of the highest energy costs in Europe?
Quite frankly, it makes little or no sense. Ofgem has made it clear that it was in regular contact with DETI, pointing out its concerns. Like many people, we find it inconceivable that the civil servants did not keep in regular contact with DECC.
While I have little sympathy for Jonathan Bell on many things, he was clearly handed a £1·18 billion hospital pass if ever there was one. Yet, no Minister is responsible. It is all the officials' fault, it was somebody else or it was the previous Minister. The responsibility, accountability —
The year 2016 has not been a good year in politics generally, and it has been a particularly bad year for these institutions. It has been marked by allegations of corruption, cronyism and incompetence; of cock-up and cover-up. It is clear that, despite all of the DUP's bluff and bluster in an attempt to distract the public, the core questions around the RHI scheme remain unanswered. Why was the scheme changed to remove the cost control measures that existed in the GB scheme? Why was the opportunity to close that loophole and correct the scheme not grasped at the earliest possible opportunity? Who knew of all of this, and at what stage? Crucially, who stood to benefit from the lack of cost control and the delay in addressing that when it was drawn to their attention?
So far, despite the many statements emanating from the DUP — indeed, because of them — the only thing of which we can be sure is that we have not heard the truth or the whole truth; instead, we have heard anything but the truth. We now need an independent, judge-led inquiry to forensically examine those issues and all of the paperwork, including emails and memos between those involved, special advisers, those who benefited from the scheme, Ministers and everyone else, including the civil servants.
The First Minister has spoken, quite rightly, of due process, but there is a precedent in this place. The First Minister was called on today to voluntarily step down and allow an investigation to take place without prejudice. I said it last week and I say it again: she should put the integrity of office against the interests of her party. She still has time to do so. The previous First Minister stood aside to allow an investigation into a £50,000 land deal, which pales into insignificance in comparison with what we are dealing with here.
Does the Member agree with me that standing aside should not be taken as an admission of wrongdoing but as a reflection of the fact that there are issues to be addressed and confidence to be restored?
Absolutely, I agree. That is why I said that she should do so without prejudice to the outcome.
However, the First Minister initially blamed her officials, behind whom she is now seeking shelter. The DUP said that neither of their Ministers had any responsibility for these issues, and so it stood until Jonathan Bell broke ranks. Suddenly, the DUP was openly willing to say that the errors which it had previously denied were entirely his fault. We have had whistle-blowers acknowledged, denied, exposed to the public and then acknowledged again, yet we still get lectures from the First Minister on clarity, truth and confidence.
Confidence is an issue that goes to the heart of this. Look at the manner in which the First Minister handled the fiasco of making her statement this morning. She failed to get the confidence and support of the deputy First Minister, and then continued with the statement in the absence of that support, undermining the very devolution settlement on which her office relies. Confidence in the First Minister has continued to be undermined. This is not about any individual; it is about these institutions, and it is about the anger, weariness and disgust that the public feel towards them at this point in time.
Stepping down at this stage, voluntarily and without prejudice, would be preferable, but it has been ruled out by the First Minister and her colleagues. That is why my colleagues and I are supporting the motion. In the new year, if Sinn Féin put forward a competent motion to effect an independent, judge-led inquiry, we will support that too.
Finally, we do not come here to support this lightly. When we went into opposition, we made a commitment that we would be a constructive opposition and would support the Government where we believed they were acting in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. Well, today they are not acting in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland; they are failing them massively. I call again on the First Minister to put the people of Northern Ireland first, as she has said that she will do. Even at this late stage, voluntarily step down from your role and allow your colleague to step in and cover for you, as you did for the previous First Minister. Initiate an independent, judge-led inquiry, under the Inquiries Act, in order that the truth can be told. No one should fear the truth unless they are hiding it now. If people are being fully honest, then they have nothing to fear. I believe that it is the intention of the motion to get to the truth of this situation, not to satisfy me or the Chamber but to satisfy the people of Northern Ireland whose money has been squandered in this debacle.
The public are rightly concerned about what has happened in the design of this scheme, about the abuse that has taken place in terms of the scheme and those who have been using it and how they have benefited from it. They are rightly concerned at the committed spend as a result of this scheme, and they rightly want people to be held to account. Those are all sentiments that Members, if they had been in the Chamber, would have heard the First Minister articulate in her statement and outline how we need to get to the truth in all of this. This motion does not have, however, the process in which to seek that. The motion is about one individual; it is not about the institutions or the Executive. If it was, it would have been a motion around the scheme and all of those areas that have been highlighted.
I appreciate the Member's additional minute. The contribution highlights, however, that this motion is to be used for a whole range of other issues, as opposed to dealing with the substance of this issue. It is about undermining Arlene Foster; that is what the purpose of this motion is.
If I was an Ulster Unionist, I would understand why you would want to undermine Arlene Foster. We only need to go back to the election. Mr Nesbitt, if he has his letter with him, can reopen it and see how many seats he was predicting. We know why the Ulster Unionists want to undermine Arlene Foster. We know why the SDLP is seeking to outflank Sinn Féin on this issue. I say to Sinn Féin, do not be spooked by what the SDLP and People Before Profit are doing. I understand that they are challenging in that constituency, but let us focus on tackling the key issues around the scheme and having a process in place that will get to the truth.
The motion brought forward by the SDLP has been seen for what it is. It is nothing but political opportunism from the party that once was the party of civil rights, that believed in innocent unless proven guilty and believed in due process. Now, set that all aside; this motion is about passing the sentence, never mind the verdict. Let us see if we can get the evidence to fit into the verdict that they now want to cast in the Assembly. That shows how the SDLP has moved from being the party of civil rights; it is not surprising that they have departed from that. When Mr Eastwood was being put right by Mr Weir with regard to the coffin that he carried, he did not like to be reminded of that. He does not like to be reminded of it because it is the truth. Members can point out all of the political opportunism that they have with the First Minister. There is nothing to hide on these Benches, but whenever the truth and the hypocrisy that they have had over many years is pointed out to the SDLP, they do not like it because it is the truth.
(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ruane] in the Chair)
Then, we have the media and the narrative that they have been pursuing. Mrs Foster referred to the publicly funded broadcaster — let us name it as the BBC — and the way in which it has conducted itself as an organisation, which is in stark contrast to some other media outlets. Again, it is about presenting allegations as fact. Again, it has been about —
On a point of order, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. Is it possible for you to give a ruling? The Minister for Communities is currently speaking as a Back-Bench DUP Member, but he has responsibility for public broadcasting in Northern Ireland and is making serious allegations against a public broadcaster: is that in order?
The BBC uses pejorative language in its interviews, presenting allegations as facts. Clearly, there has been a pursuit of Arlene Foster as an individual. The entirety of the case has been personalised. It has been made in the absence of fact on the broader issues about how submissions were never brought, the issue was never highlighted and there were failures on the part of civil servants to identify the issues. Like the public, I am alarmed that, although civil servants had given evidence to the PAC, it was only after the event — through a secret shopper — that we got to the truth. I share the anger that the public have around all of this. When the issue has been presented by the BBC and the Opposition, it has all been personalised in order to pursue the First Minister.
I remind Naomi Long, who spoke earlier, of something. This highlights how other Members reacted when the matter was dealt with in the Chamber. It was dealt with by Patsy McGlone when he was Chairman of the Committee and by all Members of the House. When Trevor Lunn, for whom I have a lot of respect, dealt with the issue of when the then Minister wanted the scheme to close, which we now know was at the end of March — then, obviously, it had to be within two weeks — he said:
"It is good news because it is an excellent scheme. A lot of people have already benefited from it, and a few more may do so before the thing closes." [Official Report (Hansard) 15 February 2016, p60, col1].
Opposition Members were saying then that it was an excellent scheme. Clearly, the evidence now shows that that is not the case, and hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Let us be clear, there will not be the resignation of the First Minister. There will not be a stepping aside by the First Minister. This party would not allow her to step aside even if she wanted to, but she does not want to. The First Minister has led the Executive for the past six months. We have been delivering on a range of issues. The Opposition want to diminish that and have used this motion as a smokescreen to try to dilute it all. We will continue to remain focused on what we need to achieve, which is to continue, over the mandate, to address the key issues that need to be tackled. Let us focus on what is important. Let us get to the root of the issues around the scheme and tackle the issue of the expenditure that is committed. Ultimately, that is what the public want. The public do not want to see the pantomime that went on this morning with the walkout, when Members could have held the First Minister to account but chose not to do so. They want us to get to grips with the issue.
It was with regret that I watched Jonathan Bell's performance when he gave evidence. The public will make judgement in due course on what was said during that. As a believer — as someone who is a Christian — I know that Jonathan can reflect on his conduct. I point him to Luke chapter 18 and the parable that the Lord told about the publican and the Pharisee. Members who are familiar with that parable —
I think that the Benches opposite are absolutely misreading the public perception. We have spent a good part of the past number of hours since today's business in the Chamber started on antics, shambolic actions and statements being made without the authority of the entire Executive Office. I do not think that that is good enough. I am embarrassed as I stand here listening to the debate that has taken place so far. You are losing the run of yourselves. This issue is about public confidence.
The Member who spoke previously talked about how the Executive had delivered in the past number of months since they came into play after the election. They have delivered on many fronts. Every action and delivery that has happened to date has been overshadowed by the fact that the DUP cannot accept that its leader needs to stand aside to make sure that there is a full investigation of the issues that have been played out and drip-fed into the ether for the past number of weeks.
I am not interested in the internal wrangling of the DUP. Get on with it; fight among yourselves. I am interested in this: public confidence in politics. I am interested in making sure that people have faith that, when they go out on election day, they can return us to come up here to do business, deliver for public services, stand up against Tory austerity and deliver front-line services. That is what I am interested in.
There is a massive job of work to be done here on public confidence. We in Sinn Féin feel that the best way to do that is to make sure that the First Minister stands aside because she has a conflict of interest. There cannot be a full investigation that the First Minister in any way has her hands in through how it is played out. The only way that we will restore that public confidence is if the investigation is totally independent, in that not one of us can touch it. I think that it has to be an independent investigation. For me, the message that needs to go out to the public today is genuine. We have to get to the bottom of this RHI scandal. We need to know the ins and outs, and we need to know the design of the scheme and who did what, when they did it, how they did it and with whose influence they did it. We need all those —
Let me finish this point.
All that information needs to be in the public domain.
Secondly, the public need to know that action is being taken to stop the flow of money from the public purse. That is key in all this. The public need to know and to have faith that, when a problem was identified and a scandal uncovered, it was stopped. We need to do that. Thirdly, all this has to be in the public domain. Everybody needs to know exactly who benefited from the scheme and when they are going to benefit. All that information needs to be out there, and, for me, those three things are key.
Our position is very clear, and we have made it absolutely crystal clear. The First Minister, Arlene Foster, needs to step aside while this investigation happens. Let me say that, when I listen to those who tabled the motion, in some senses, I doubt your motivation. I listened to your antics and your contributions today. The public are not interested in playing games; the public are interested in answers. The best way to have those is to have this full investigation.
Let me make this point.
Those who tabled the motion focus on one issue: Arlene Foster standing down. I have said that I agree with that, but your motion does not go far enough. Your motion does not look at the whole gamut or at the need for the investigation. Your motion does not look at every other issue that needs to be out there in public. That is why we tabled an amendment that, given all the antics that went on this morning, the Speaker, for his own reasons, decided not to accept. We will bring that amendment back as a motion. I welcome the fact that Naomi Long said that the Alliance Party will be able to or could support that when we come back to it early in the new year.
People should stop getting on with all the nonsense. The institutions have taken an absolute kicking here. I am absolutely wedded to delivering front-line public services for individuals. I am a Health Minister with massive challenges in budgetary issues and in trying to do all the things we need to do to increase our investment in primary care. Those are the things that the public want to hear us talk about, not this stuff. So for me today, this is about antics, this is about stunts, this is about —
You will have your opportunity to speak.
This is about antics and stunts, so let us get back to the crux of the issue: credibility and integrity. Each and every one of us needs to have those. Arlene Foster needs to step aside. We have made that very clear. Let us use the next number of weeks to reflect so that, when we come back to our motion, which we have now tabled for debate early in the new year, I will look forward to all those who tabled the motion today supporting that motion. That is the key to delivering what the public are asking for. The public mood shows that people are angry. People want and deserve answers, and we will deliver those. I will not be distracted by party politics. This is not an orange and green issue, and it is not an issue between parties: it is about public confidence and integrity. Those are what I am most interested in in how we take things forward.
In the future —
We were not long in the Chamber today when we discovered the whole nature of the motion. Earlier today, we had the First Minister come to the House. She was asked and was willing to come to the House. She came to the House to put herself in front of Members for any interrogation and cross-examination, but all those sitting to my right said, "Look, we are not interested in the facts here. The facts don't bother us in the slightest. We are just interested in what hits the headlines, whether it is in the print media, the watching media, the listening media or anything else".
That is all that they are interested in. So, what did they do? They jumped up and said, "We will not be listening to any facts, folks. We must get out of the House because the facts will embarrass us". Therefore, they gowl here today. When you throw a stone into a pack of dogs, you always know the one that you have hit: it is the one that gowls the loudest. What we have right round the Chamber today are a lot of people gowling and shouting but not coming forward with very many facts. They just want to generate a whole lot of heat.
However, they do not want to generate a lot of light, because there is no light within them.
Not at the moment; maybe later.
The motion is nothing short of a disgraceful attempt, to say the least, by failed parties to create the impression that the First Minister has:
"failed to observe the highest standards of propriety and regularity in relation to the stewardship of public funds".
They have, however, not produced a scintilla of evidence or any facts — not one.
I never knew Mr Steve Aiken until he came to the House, but I have learned one thing from him very quickly: he is an absolute maestro of exaggeration. My goodness, he can lift a pinhead and make it into a mountain instantly, and I remind him that he was at it today. He talks about the £400 million.
At least there is a bit of humility in you. He talked about this £400 million. Well, £400 million has not been spent, Mr Aiken. He went on to say that there is a suicide in our prisons every week. When is that happening? This is unbelievable stuff. We have gone along the line of fantasy and make-believe: grab the headlines, say the super things and the media will come racing for it.
The Member has asked us to give him facts. The fact of the matter is that, if the money that has been committed — £400 million — cannot be clawed back, it will be taken away from our roads, our hospitals, our social housing and our front-line services, which are in much need of it. There are facts for you.
I understand what you say, but I hope that Members will give me the courtesy of being heard. I suspect that they do not like what they are hearing. Do you know something? You are going to hear it anyway.
Let us turn to Mr Nesbitt —
Yes, of course. Mr Nesbitt now has the unenviable job of getting the monkey off his back, and the monkey is this: he was the great white hope for the Ulster Unionist Party. The Ulster Unionist Party had dominated the political scene for so long, and it wheeled in this TV kid and said, "This is the boy who will save us". What happened? He led his party to the lowest vote in its history. He now sees Arlene Foster as the real threat, and he must get rid of her. You will not be getting rid of her. You will not be getting rid of her.
Then, we turn to the SDLP. They, too, had a catastrophic election result under their young leader, the young pretender who tells his party that they will lead, but they are sinking desperately.
They sink so low that they will now even name children's play parks after terrorists so that they can court support from Sinn Féin supporters, and it does not work. They all sit with blushed faces and say, "We're sorry, but there's not a thing we can do about it". Let it be said very clearly that the same Mr Nesbitt — I will leave him for a minute.
Then we have the sanctimonious Alliance Party. They are whiter than white and purer than pure. They come into the House with this sanctimonious look on their face —
There are two principal reasons why the First Minister must take responsibility for the mess and stand aside. First, her ineptitude has dealt a devastating blow to our international business reputation. For a Minister who prided herself on the levels of FDI that she attracted and boasted of how attractive she would make Northern Ireland for investment, she has brought disdain on these institutions, which are now held up to public ridicule.
I agree that we ought to fight to limit the damage done to our public purse. We need to stop the bleed as best we can. The First Minister is not a safe pair of hands on Northern Ireland's public finances. She is clearly not across the detail, despite her public utterances that "detail is important". Why would businesses look to come here when our First Minister has made such a catastrophic policy decision? She was the First Minister; she was responsible. What must the United Kingdom Treasury think of us and our apparent inability to manage public funds? Will this impact on our future ask for additional block grant funding? What will the head of the Civil Service do about the possible negligence issues amongst senior staff? The DUP, particularly its leadership, is central to this, and the First Minister stepping aside will help to fix some of the harm that has been done to our business reputation.
The second reason for the First Minister to step aside is this: no one can trust her to do the right thing. How on earth can the First Minister expect anyone to put their faith in her while this issue is being investigated?
No, I will not.
How foolish does she think the people of Northern Ireland are that they would trust her to be impartial and allow a report to be published — and its recommendations enacted — that will damn her and her party? Does she honestly expect the House and the people of Northern Ireland to have such short memories? Does the First Minister expect the way in which I was treated to be forgotten and the slate wiped clean? I am sorry, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, but it seems that she apparently has forgotten what happened the last time a DUP Minister was investigated for loathsome practice and the disdain with which the DUP treats Committee reports. A report was issued in 2014 in which I was vindicated and a certain gentleman sitting on the DUP Back Benches, as well as the special adviser who conveniently retired from politics shortly before this mess was exposed, were found wanting. That report, which was produced by the Assembly's Social Development Committee after exhaustive evidence sessions and research, contained the truth of the matter. How did the First Minister's party react to the truth being shown? They tried to silence it. They tried to put forward their own spin in the form of a minority report. They tried to use the petition of concern to defend the party and the Minister from the truth coming out. They treated the Assembly, the Committee and me with contempt.
Why on earth should we ever trust that party to accept the truth? Why would anyone doubt for a moment that, if the report produced by the PAC was unpalatable to DUP Members, they would attempt to water it down or block it? They have done it before. They did it to me. Even if a report is issued independently — one that rightly points to the odious incompetence at the heart of the DUP — without the proper Assembly powers, why would we doubt that they would misuse the petitions of concern and other mechanisms to insulate their party from justice?
No, I am afraid that I for one, having been through purgatory because of the DUP, certainly will not allow them to conceal the truth behind opaque Assembly mechanisms.
Arlene Foster is too closely tied to the scandal. Her party has a miserable history of protecting itself from any meaningful scrutiny by this Assembly. For that reason, she absolutely must stand aside while a genuinely independent investigation is done.
Before us in the Chamber over these last number of hours, we have had two attempts to close down an investigation.
In the motion before us from the opposition parties and the Alliance Party, we have a proposal to come to the conclusion of an investigation before it is started. That, surely, is not the way we should be doing business.
The motion, as outlined to us, states that the First Minister, in her role as Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, acted in a way that put public funds in severe jeopardy and squandered them. Is that the case? It is quite possibly the case, but to reach that conclusion, you require an investigation, and the motion from the opposition parties does not include any investigation. It does not include a reference to a judge-led inquiry or any material as to how that inquiry would be carried out, so the motion is fatally flawed and premature.
This morning, we had a statement from the leader of the DUP —
Perhaps in a moment. I will see.
— we had a statement from the leader of the DUP that contained the conclusions of a DUP investigation. I referenced 15 conclusions or references to the truth or facts. I am sorry, but that is simply not good enough. It is not up to the opposition to find the leader of the DUP guilty, and it is not up to the DUP to find the leader of the DUP innocent.
That is why we have brought forward a motion that calls for a judge-led inquiry by a figure from outside this jurisdiction into the rights and wrongs of what happened around the RHI scheme, which political figures were involved in it, which Civil Service figures were or were not involved in it and who benefited from it. That is how you do business in relation to placing accusations in front of people, whether in the Assembly or a court of law. Those are the rules that we all signed up to.
I listened with interest, I have to say, to the leader of the DUP talking about trial by television and ensuring that accusations are fully investigated etc. I hope they stick to that mantra. I think of my colleague Máirtín Ó Muilleoir and how, only a few short months ago, the same principles and high integrity were not adopted at that stage. But if we stick to the rules, we can all play by the rules.
In terms of what happened around RHI, there was, without doubt, a flaw in the system. We all acknowledge that. Everybody accepts that there was a flaw in the system. The question that has to be answered is this: when was the flaw identified, who identified it and who benefited from it?
At the heart of this is not an investigation into whether a Minister, a civil servant or a scrutiny Committee did not carry out their functions properly. The general public are highly suspicious — and they are quite right to be so — that someone or a group of selected people benefited to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds individually, and perhaps up to £1 million in one case, of public money.
Who told them of this lucrative deal? Who spotted the flaw and went out and met members of business groups and farmers who may or may not be contributors to the DUP? Because, folks, that is what is at the heart of this: corruption. Were members or supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party or other political parties in this Chamber taken to one side, shown the details of the scheme and told, "Buy into this and you'll make money"?
That is the public suspicion, folks. I am sorry, but the DUP investigation that was read out to us this morning does not cover that issue, and it needs to be covered.
I will end on this comment. Part of the problem is that some in the Chamber believe that we have a Prime Minister of Norn Iron: we do not. You are in the joint First Minister and deputy First Minister's office, and that is the way that things have to operate here. I do not care what legal advice was given to the Speaker this morning; I will give you some serious political advice: if the jointery of that office is corrupted, I doubt that there will be an office.
I am speaking as an ordinary Member, Principal Deputy Speaker.
I oppose the motion. I do so because the motion is based on a litany of erroneous charges — charges that are all without evidence. I want to do my best in the time that is available to me to address some of the issues surrounding at least two of those charges. The first one, which seems to be the argument coming from opposition Benches, is that Arlene Foster should take full and sole responsibility for mistakes that were made and flaws that were inherent in the original design of the renewable heat incentive scheme.
I have hardly started, for goodness' sake. The First Minister has made it clear that she does take responsibility. She is answerable to the House. She is answerable to the Assembly. She made herself answerable to it at the Dispatch Box this morning at the request of Members whose names the motion stands in. Where were the opposition parties when the First Minister came to the House this morning to give a full and complete explanation of the circumstances behind the RHI scheme and her involvement in it? They were not here. They ran away. The charge is that the First Minister should take sole and full responsibility for the flaws in the design of the scheme. That completely misses out and obscures the involvement of Members on all sides of the House and, critically, others in the design of the scheme.
I thank the Member for his intervention. He makes a salient point.
The House knows full well that bad advice was given by so-called policy experts in the Department on the design of the scheme. External consultants were brought in to review the scheme. They have admitted to the Public Accounts Committee that they made mistakes, and they have apologised for those. The Assembly voted for it. This is not something that went through the negative resolution procedure or that did not have to come to the House: the House voted for the regulations to set up the scheme. They were scrutinised by and passed through the Committee. The then Chair of the Committee, Mr Patsy McGlone, is on record during the debate in the House in which the regulations were passed as saying:
"The Committee scrutiny of the development of the renewable heat incentive has been considerable and reflects the importance and long-term nature of the proposals." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 78, p299, col 2].
That is what Mr McGlone said in the House. In all that is said in here and outside the House, let us not forget for one second the role played by Members from parties on all sides of the House in the creation and scrutiny of the scheme. I am happy to say that no one — not politicians, civil servants or external consultants — spotted the flaws. No one. Members here wish to wipe away their involvement in the creation of the scheme and their part in passing the proposals. They do not want to take responsibility for that, but they should take responsibility.
The second charge that I want to deal with, which I have heard from Members who spoke previously, is that the Minister somehow intervened to keep the scheme open for a longer period for some nefarious reason that nobody seems to want to talk about or make any suggestion about. There is not a single shred of evidence of any involvement by the current First Minister in the issues surrounding the 2015 change in the tariff of the scheme. However, in 2016, the First Minister was heavily involved and intervened, but her intervention at that time was to the benefit of the scheme.
It was to bring forward the closure of the scheme to an earlier date than that which had been agreed by the then Minister, who had agreed to close the scheme in mid March. The intervention of the First Minister and deputy First Minister at that time brought forward the closure of the scheme to February. If anything, in respect of that charge, we should thank the First Minister and deputy First Minister for their intervention.
Lest there be any doubt, Arlene Foster will not step aside. Why would she? She has done nothing wrong. She has nothing to fear. That is why she has called for and endorsed an independent investigation of the RHI scheme so that all the evidence is out there and the truth will be found. She fears nothing from the truth. There is no evidence whatsoever of any wrongdoing, yet people want to hang her on the basis of no substantial evidence at all. She certainly will not step down at the behest of her political opponents, who have shown themselves by their actions today and on previous days to have no interest in the substance of this and to be interested only in stunts. She will not go anywhere because she has a job to do. I am working closely with her on developing a plan to mitigate the worst costs and reduce substantially the cost of the RHI scheme. Arlene Foster is a leader. Leaders walk towards the problem. They do not walk away like others do. When they have the opportunity to lead or to take on the responsibility of government —
It is fair to say that belief in the will and ability of the Assembly has been low in recent years, but this fiasco has turned that public frustration and dissatisfaction into anger. The First Minister has had ample opportunity over the last two weeks to restore some confidence and dignity in the institution and to instigate a thorough public inquiry to get to the root of how and why £400 million of public money is being so shamefully wasted. We want to be clear that a fudged inquiry that is set up and directed by the Executive or their proxies will not be able to get to the bottom of that scandal. Any brinkmanship about and risk to the structure, despite that deep frustration, will leave us with no possibility of getting to the bottom of it.
Not for the first time, I wonder whether the party across the Chamber cares who they make cynical when they can just trot out, as the First Minister and her colleagues have done, the old headcount lines that it is about nationalists and others ganging up on the leader of unionism while the benign —
No, I will not.
The benign taxpayer here is supposed to just continue picking up the tab and becoming more and more disenfranchised.
The arrogance today is breathtaking. You may think that this is hilarious, but nobody out there is laughing at this loss of money. The defence has been to spread it about and blame it on anybody but the boss — on civil servants, the Opposition and the media — using "whataboutery", repeated versions of the story and a best defence of not being across the detail. The party that has been moaning about faceless unelected bureaucrats in Europe is apparently content to let SpAds run the show. The party that cannot even cut and paste London's scheme tells us that it has the competence to lead Northern Ireland.
This scandal represents the Executive's ineptitude and dysfunction. The fact is that, during the in/out charade of last year, when Arlene Foster was left to guard against rogues and renegades, and, according to Peter Robinson, was there to ensure that nationalists and republicans were not able to take financial and other decisions that may be detrimental to Northern Ireland, a well-intentioned scheme was apparently being used as a ruse to make money for those who were in the know. It is clear now who the rogues and renegades are.
It is also clear which party was in the driving seat here, but we are left wondering what the other partner in government has been doing. As with NAMA and SIF, Sinn Féin has either been turning a blind eye here or has merely been along for the ride: in government but not in power. We defend the joint nature of the Executive Office, as we did when we would not listen to illegitimate preaching to the choir this morning. People will want to know that there is, indeed, a joint office and that somebody is there to prevent what really is becoming worse than the worst excesses of one-party Stormont rule in the past. If Sinn Féin believes that it is what Mr O'Dowd just said it was — corruption — and it wants to do anything other than throw shapes, it can support our motion to exclude the First Minister. If, on the long finger in the new year, it wants to build on that with an inquiry, it can do so — we will all support an inquiry — but there is no reason why it cannot support our motion.
At a time when household budgets are under pressure, the sums here are horrifying, but I have heard very little about those sums from the Benches opposite. The view that, apparently, because it was London money, it was OK to squander it is really breathtaking and arrogant. Whether the money comes from London, Brussels, Washington or Belfast, somebody earned it and paid it in tax, and all taxpayers are entitled to know that their money is being fairly spent.
I will not; I have a lot to get through.
The environmental aims of the scheme were completely ignored by the Department, which took it from the Department of Energy and Climate Change and made it into what has, apparently, been just a money-making scheme that has led to more environmental degradation as not just public money but the materials involved go up in smoke. The ramifications will be felt not just over the next 20 years but now, in that we were supposed to be discussing the Budget today and instead are discussing this fiasco. At a time when the Executive need more scrutiny, not less, the Opposition will not have access to the Budget figures this side of recess.
In the minds of the public, alleged cronyism and corruption are written all over this. Mrs Foster has an opportunity to restore some faith. You referred to conviction without trial, but Peter Robinson set the precedent for this and the Civil Service uses the same mechanism, whereby somebody who is being investigated stands aside. This very weekend, you suspended a member of your party, pending an investigation. Take the plank out of your eye, and take the opportunity to —
Does the Member agree that some on the Benches opposite have a short memory? As Mr O'Dowd mentioned, they suggested that Máirtín Ó Muilleoir step aside during an investigation of the affairs around Mr Bryson.
Yes, I agree. If the party opposite is so confident that there has been no wrongdoing, let all the facts go into the public domain. Let it be dealt with at a remove from the Assembly, and let us restore some confidence in the Assembly.
I am saddened and appalled by the motion because, as the leader of the SDLP clearly confirmed in his contribution to the debate, it is personal. I met Arlene Foster nearly 30 years ago. I have always believed her to be a true friend and colleague, a person of the highest integrity, honesty and loyalty and someone who works hard with commitment and dedication. It is fair to talk about the last week because, unlike Ms Hanna, I recognise that the Minister was in China the previous week, fighting for jobs and new markets for our pork producers. This all happened when she was out of the country, which is, perhaps, no surprise.
Many politicians and journalists have sought to attack Arlene Foster's character. That portrayal of Arlene Foster — my colleague, my friend, my leader and our First Minister — is not what I know of her, and it is not what the people on these Benches know of her.
I will speak of Arlene Foster as a Minister. Since her election to Stormont, Arlene Foster has been a first-class Minister, holding the portfolios of environment; enterprise, trade and investment; and finance. She is now our First Minister, and a truly outstanding First Minister she is, popular in the unionist and broader Northern Ireland community. There is no doubt that she has brought competence, incisiveness, professionalism and attention to detail to every role that she has had here, particularly her ministerial roles.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Figures have been bandied around in the media. Does the Member agree that it is a bit rich for a party that spent £40 million on a road that was never built to lecture anybody on how to run a Department?
If Members choose to deal with facts, not fantasy, they will remember that, in DETI, this Minister led from the front, securing jobs and attracting to Northern Ireland foreign direct investment that exceeded even that going to London and the south-east of England. Her focus and the focus of my party has been on strengthening the economy, and her leadership and the results delivered by Arlene Foster are absolutely testament to that.
From my short time on the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I can confirm that, when she appeared in front of that Committee, Arlene Foster was absolutely in complete command of that brief. Indeed, most importantly, as a Minister, not only did she enjoy the confidence of that Committee and of the Chairman of the Committee, as has been exemplified by Mr Hamilton's remarks, she enjoyed the confidence of foreign Governments, foreign investors, local business, local business associations and, indeed, the trade unions.
I want to turn to the RHI scheme. There is no doubt that, in the First Minister's own words in the House this morning, there were shocking errors and failures in the RHI scheme, and a catalogue of mistakes. Without question. It is for the credibility of the House and of the Northern Ireland Executive that we have to regain the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland and of those people who sent us here to do a job of work. It is essential that these errors and mistakes in the scheme are arrested. There must be transparency and there must be openness. There must be an independent investigation. Indeed, that is exactly what the First Minister said this morning in the House. There must be financial recovery, and that is exactly what the First Minister, the Finance Minister and the Economy Minister are working on. Indeed, I understand that that is exactly what the First Minister is doing at this very moment.
I have spoken to many people over the last week when I have been out in my constituency and others, and it is absolutely clear that people out there are fearful and concerned about the levels of money that are being talked about, but the levels of money being talked about in the House — Members know it well — are not the levels of money that have been spent on this scheme. That is exactly the issue that the First Minister addressed this morning.
In conclusion, it is for the First Minister, the Executive and the House to provide certainty, confidence and surety to the people of Northern Ireland. It is our duty and our responsibility, but, as a member of the Democratic Unionist Party and as Chair of a Committee of the House, I have to say that I have known Arlene Foster a long, long time. She has the skills, the talent, the attributes and the determination, and will clear up what is a mess and see the confidence restored to the people of Northern Ireland, for this House and for these institutions. She has my full support.
The situation is continuing to escalate today, and the hopes that some of us had — somewhat naively, perhaps — that things would be brought to a head and confidence would be restored are being sorely dashed. The issue remains one of public confidence. Public confidence is extremely low, and we have to be humble across all corners of the Assembly and recognise that. That builds upon what has been a very difficult and challenging six months for the Assembly, where it has become characterised by a lack of openness and transparency on the part of the Executive and a succession of scandals. It is important to bear in mind that while the current fiasco around renewable heat is the most extreme, it is not the only issue of public concern at present.
This has now become a crisis of power-sharing, and the institutions are being pushed to their limits. The checks and balances that would be at play in other, normal democracies — I accept that we are not a fully normal democracy — are not at all present in our own situation. If this was happening elsewhere, the expectation, internally within the legislature and in the media, would lead to the main players voluntarily stepping aside while the process of restoring confidence played out. We can point to numerous examples of that in neighbouring jurisdictions and, indeed, further afield. Members have also cited the precedent of Peter Robinson in 2010, and I say to the DUP that, insofar as it is denying that there is any case for Mrs Foster to step aside, it is implicitly attacking Mr Robinson for having the decency to step aside in 2010. I stress that he was ultimately cleared as part of that process.
The Member, his colleagues and others in the House have had the best part of a week to throw questions and accusations at the First Minister in the press. The First Minister made herself available for questioning and scrutiny. Do you think that the public really care about this joint-nature defence that you have put up for not being here to ask questions? No, they do not.
I care, and Mr Stalford should care as well. We need to take very seriously what has happened today and the wider implications that will flow from it. There is a case for reviewing the joint nature of the Executive Office; frankly, it is a cumbersome wreck. It takes weeks, if not months or years, for answers to emerge to questions and for correspondence to be addressed because of the joint sign-off. However, there can be no unilateral runs, as happened today. I dare say that what has happened today sets a precedent. Frankly, Mrs Foster was tone-deaf to political circumstances in the Chamber. If she was a true leader, she would have understood the potential damage to the institutions of a solo run and stepped back voluntarily. Now, I would like to have the proper forum to ask questions, and no doubt it will emerge in due course, but doing that today in this half-baked manner was entirely counterproductive.
Let us look at some of the issues before us: how the scheme was designed; how the whistle-blower was handled; the nature of the closure of the scheme; and concerns over potential conflicts of interest. Arising from that, we need to see the full list of those who were recipients of the grants. Frankly, an opt-in scheme is not good enough, because there will be questions about who has not opted in. Alongside that, names of donors to the DUP need to be published, so that people can make a full comparison between the two lists. Everything may be perfectly innocent, but that important information should be out there in the public interest.
There is also the wider challenge in terms of the DUP's approach to governance. There are issues concerning Arlene Foster's attention to detail. When were questions asked? Indeed, were the relevant questions asked? Did she ask at the outset whether the approach they were adopting was sustainable and what the risks were? Any Minister doing their job should ask their officials those questions — particularly about the potential costs — whenever a submission comes across their desk. It is right that questions are asked of the Civil Service. The Civil Service includes many brilliant and dedicated people, but they are not infallible. That is why Ministers and special advisers are there. They are, in effect, the internal line of defence. They should scrutinise their Departments in the same way that they expect the Assembly to do so on the outside. In my experience, both I and my special adviser caught things that were not caught by the Civil Service and saved money as a consequence.
There is a wider issue, and I put this on the record: we have to be concerned about the potential politicisation of the Civil Service, which is becoming a political football on the issue. Officials are being dragged out, backwards and forwards, and cited to defend one political point against another. We need to be very careful that we do not lose the impartiality of the Civil Service.
Then there is the approach to decision-making by Ministers and SpAds. That is not how Alliance did government. Our Ministers and special advisers knew the boundaries of their respective roles. They respected one another and were, in turn, respected by their civil servants. I am sure that applies to those who have operated from many other political parties as well.
There is the issue of how this has been handled in the media over the past number of days. There was a refusal to apologise and accept responsibility until quite late in the day.
Then, there is the need for a proper public inquiry. On that point, I stress that the motion is necessary but not sufficient. If there had been a voluntary stepping aside, the motion would not be necessary —
— but it is necessary in that context. However, we are not precluded from discussing, on a separate day, a separate motion regarding a public inquiry. We are certainly happy to do that and will give it our support.
I rise in support of the motion. First Minister, as a result of your flawed renewable heat scheme some £485 million of taxpayer funds have been committed wastefully from future Budgets. That is a big number. Unused barns are being heated while many struggle to heat their homes. Inspections have been inadequate. These are all facts. I acknowledge that many businesses were attracted to the scheme, particularly in the early days, for sound environmental reasons rather than as a means of generating profit. Clearly, that changed. The integrity of this institution is at stake. Who is accountable for these hundreds of millions of pounds in costs and losses?
'The Nolan Show' this morning revealed that Minister Foster received a personal email directly from the whistle-blower in September 2013, in which the specific warnings were detailed, but they were not acted on. Explain.
The Northern Ireland Executive are in a state of turmoil. The attention of DUP Ministers is not on the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland but on continuing personal power. Today was pencilled in for the draft Budget originally. There has been no talk of it. Without proper, advance planning for all the Departments and agencies and the community and voluntary sector, poor decision-making will result. The Executive are in disarray. Rather than talking about a Budget, the focus is on the renewable heat incentive scheme and the losses incurred.
As others have said, when Mr Robinson's actions became the political focus, he voluntarily stood aside for an investigation to be completed and allowed government to function. I suggest that you should do the same. The renewable heat incentive was introduced in late 2012, when you were the ETI Minister — the Minister responsible. A short time later, in 2013, further protections were added in GB. There is tiering in GB, which greatly reduces the payment after a certain number of hours' usage. There is also degression, which is quarterly changes in the level of support offered depending on the demand. You, Minister, took the policy decision not to introduce either of those protections. For that, you are answerable. A vote was not put to the Assembly on that: you took that decision. The Northern Ireland Audit Office report states that a poultry industry boiler used 24 hours a day would give an 82% annual return on investment at public expense. Outrageous.
Minister, you then became Finance Minister. I agree with the comments from my colleague: a rugby hospital pass was given to Minister Bell. Alarm bells must have been ringing in May 2015 when DETI sought reapproval of the renewable heat incentive with the Finance Department at a very senior level. How was that handled from then on? Assembly Member Bell's evidence tells of the DUP's OFMDFM SpAds — gatekeepers — causing delays in facing the problem. Why are there delays in publishing the details of the companies and charities involved? Can we have them? How is it a data protection issue? Who benefited during that critical period? There are lots of questions that remain unanswered. It appears that there was a lack of focus on value for money. The assumption was, "Don't worry about it, because Westminster's picking up the bill". It is all taxpayers' money. Minister Foster, you were and are responsible —
You are and were responsible for your special advisers, who have been out of control. SpAds can be incredibly powerful. We learned that in the Social Development Committee when I served on it, when we had to resort to the 1998 Act to uncover the result of an independent investigation of Stephen Brimason, the DSD special adviser, over Red Sky. The investigation recommended that a formal disciplinary action be held, but the Minister refused to agree to it.
Lots of decisions are made, and civil servants can present ideas to the Minister. The Minister should also be looking more widely around her at what is happening elsewhere. Ultimately, as the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, she took decisions and made judgements. She decided not to introduce protections.
Stephen Brimason then gave evidence to the Social Development Committee, but he stonewalled it. He kept saying, "I do not recall". What happened to him? Rather than being disciplined by the DUP, he was promoted by Peter Robinson. Subsequently, what did Arlene Foster do? She reappointed him. Where is your humility?
From Department to Department, Arlene Foster has presided over a catalogue of failures. As Environment Minister, she rejected multiple calls following a public consultation to implement an independent environmental protection agency. Later, the Mills review highlighted the systemic failure in the then DOE and the £250 million clean-up cost that we could be faced with in dealing with illegal waste dumping. There was an opportunity to put in proper regulation and enforcement, but Mrs Foster declined that opportunity, and the public will be left with the bill.
When she was Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, we lost a £1 billion offshore wind farm project for Northern Ireland that would have been the largest in the whole of the UK. The project was put together by an international consortium, including a business from Holywood in my constituency. The self-appointed champion of foreign direct investment did not get involved and did not secure that investment for Northern Ireland, and another failure happened on her watch.
The renewable heat incentive scheme, which had been successful in the rest of the UK, has been botched in Northern Ireland alone. Arlene Foster blamed it on her civil servants. She blamed it on her successor. She blamed it on the media. She blamed it on the Opposition. She blamed it on everyone except the person who was in charge at the time: Arlene Foster. She has form for blaming things on others and for abdicating responsibility to her civil servants. When I was first elected to the House in 2011, I called her out for not declaring land that her husband owned in relation to a licensed fracking area. She said that she had nothing to do with giving out petroleum exploration licences in Northern Ireland. She said that she had not signed the licences; it was her civil servants.
What we are left with is a picture of a Minister who either does not accept the responsibility that she has or who is incompetent in discharging that responsibility. I support today's motion of no confidence on behalf of the Green Party because I cannot have confidence in a Minister who does not stand up and take responsibility when things go wrong. The media furore that has surrounded this debate — rightly, given the sums of money involved — could have been avoided had she stepped up at the time and, when the failings came to light, said that she got it wrong. We would not have seen the heat that this debate has caused had she accepted responsibility from the start.
To have had a track record of such failure time and time again can only lead me to the conclusion that Arlene Foster is a very shrewd, a very ruthless and a very skilled politician. Unfortunately, I can only conclude that she is an incompetent Minister.
The right thing to do would be to step down pending an investigation. In any organisation, that is the normal due process when someone is accused of mishandling in their role, which is, indeed, the process that Mr Jonathan Bell has faced. He has been accused of breaching party rules and has been asked to step down without prejudice and pending an investigation. It is time that Arlene Foster did the same.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve answers. They deserve to know how this was allowed to happen under Mrs Foster's governance. They deserve to know what went wrong, and they deserve the confidence of knowing that the mistakes will be learned from and that, in future, such mistakes will not be made again. They cannot, however, have that confidence while Arlene Foster remains at the helm and is involved in setting the terms of reference of any inquiry that goes forward. The inquiry must be independent and judge-led, and we need to be confident that Mrs Foster's fingerprints will not be on that inquiry.
I hear the objection that today's motion does not go far enough, but I see no objection to the content of the motion, which asks Mrs Foster to step aside while she is investigated.
Of course, I reject the motion to exclude a Minister whom Northern Ireland needs to get us through some of the darkest weeks of devolution. There is absolutely no doubt that these have been a dark couple of weeks. There have been massive issues and failings, and they have to be investigated. However, while they are being investigated, we need to ensure that we get something in place that can claw back into the public purse some of the money that has not yet been spent but is projected to be spent. Of all MLAs, who is best placed to do that? I believe that it is the First Minister, Arlene Foster.
I agree with Sinn Féin that today has been a circus, and I will tell you why. For two weeks flat, the Opposition parties have been calling for the First Minister to come before them to address and answer their questions on the renewable heat scheme; yet, when they had the opportunity this morning, they walked out of this place.
No, I will make progress.
Here is the issue. I can tell you now that, if people feel that the First Minister has:
"failed to observe the highest standards of propriety and regularity in relation to the stewardship of public funds in relation to the renewable heat Incentive scheme" we are all guilty. We are all guilty because the scheme came before the House and we all voted for it. It went through rigorous scrutiny. I was on the ETI Committee with a lot of my colleagues and the Chairperson, Patsy McGlone, who did a sterling job and was a very decent and fair Chairperson. We scrutinised it, as we did all legislation that came before us. We scrutinised it to death.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
The House also voted to close the scheme, but, at that point:
"SDLP West Tyrone MLA Daniel McCrossan has slammed a decision by the Minister Jonathan Bell to axe the Renewable Heat Incentive. The loss of the scheme which funds renewable heating projects to produce renewable energy is predicted to cost 2,000 jobs with a business owner in Omagh expressing concern".
"The original 31 March deadline for the sector should be reinstated and honoured." — [Official Report (Hansard), 15 February 2016, p60, col 1].
He went even further than that, saying that the Minister:
"needs to agree, through consultation with the industry groups such as the Federation of Master Builders, a phased winding-down period, which will allow businesses the opportunity to plan for the change in their revenue stream." — [Official Report (Hansard), 15 February 2016, p60, col 1].
How much longer did Adrian Cochrane-Watson want to give the scheme?
Of course, we had Jim Allister saying:
"Those who took up the scheme did so in good faith". — [Official Report (Hansard), 15 February 2016, p64, col 1].
There is a change. All the businesses and domestic users involved have been ridiculed in the press over the last two weeks. It is they who feel, "What is going on up there?"
"They now find that they cannot do that and that it will cost them hugely." — [Official Report (Hansard), 15 February 2016, p64, col 1].
You cannot have it both ways, Members. We are all responsible for our actions, and we are all responsible for this.
The welfare reform crisis cost this country millions of pounds, and, were it not for the actions of this party, it would have cost us £100 million every year. The grass was growing long and potholes were not being filled, and those were only what the people could see; what about the waiting lists? Where was the SDLP when that was happening? It was playing politics, as it is with this issue. People want to know what happened. Let us have an independent investigation to see what happened. Let us drive this country forward. Who is best placed to do that? The First Minister of this country, Arlene Foster. Let us go forward and see whether we can organise a plan with the Finance Minister to try to draw back some of the projected spend.
It may be pantomime season, but it would better serve this House to move away from play-acting and towards the resolution of a truly difficult situation in a spirit of cooperation and constructive behaviour. We face a serious situation, and Members showed by their actions this morning that they were more interested in Assembly process around statements and grandstanding by means of this exclusion motion than in hearing from the First Minister and taking the opportunity to put a direct question to her on the issue. We cannot, should not and must not be in a position where, every time an issue of significance is raised in the Assembly, politics is allowed to cloud that which is really important.
This motion seeks to exclude the First Minister. To what end? She has agreed to, and supports, an independent inquiry. She has acknowledged and accepted her responsibilities, insofar as they lay with her. At no time has she sought to shirk those responsibilities. Rather, as is her way, she has sought to address the problem head on. Members could have heard that this morning, had they remained with us.
Contrary to the principles of fairness or natural justice, the motion aims to exclude her without a shred of evidence of wrongdoing and, ultimately, on the basis that she followed advice. We all agree with the convention that Ministers bear responsibility for that which occurs in their Departments, but at the root of this matter is the lack of cost control measures built into the scheme. Let us remember that the brightest and best considered this scheme; it was pored over by experts from the departmental team and a team of highly paid consultants. Indeed, it was pored over by the Assembly scrutiny Committee, which, in fairness to it, had no more expertise in this area than the Minister herself.
None of them found any remote problem at the time. None of them expressed any concern at the time. The fact remains that the Minister would have been rightly and roundly criticised for ignoring such advice. It would be a bizarre state of affairs had we found ourselves in circumstances where, on receipt of confirmation from internal and external advisers that a scheme was correct and proper, a Minister did not follow that advice. If the advice to the Minister was incorrect, then so was the advice received by the Committee. The truth is that that advice convinced everybody who saw it, including the scrutiny Committee and every other party here.
What is important, for the sake of public confidence, is that the problem is rectified as quickly as is practicably possible and with the minimum expenditure of taxpayers' hard-earned cash. Yet, very regrettably, this has not been the focus. This is reflected even in the way in which this matter has been reported. If they were interested in resolving this situation effectively and efficiently for the sake of public confidence, the media would have come forward with all the information at their disposal and not played this out like a soap opera. They cannot have this both ways. On the one hand, they say that it is the gravest, most significant situation that the Executive have ever faced. Yet, on the other hand, they say, "We have news that is of critical import, but we will let you know tomorrow or maybe next week.". This sensationalist, tantalising approach with a focus on "He said, she said" and how many people were in the room for some alleged row does nothing to foster an environment of conveying the facts with the purpose of finding a resolution as quickly as possible. Instead, Ministers are asked to comment on emails that they are not shown, a line here or a paragraph there. They call for openness and transparency with which we agree — all of us — but this is the opposite of how they behave. Moreover, it ignores the root of the issue that the First Minister and the Minister for the Economy have been working hard to fix the fundamental problem and rein in the costs.
The First Minister has nothing to hide and nothing to fear — not the truth — as some have suggested this morning. There is nothing from which she should or will run away. What matters to her, to us and to the public is that this is fixed and who we trust to fix it.
This has been an interesting debate. The nub of it has been that the inevitably of where we are today is that an everyone-but-Arlene tactic has been used to try to dump the blame on everyone, including officials, consultants, the media and every Assembly Member and Committee. However, there is a distinction. Not all of those individuals had advice, access to notes or to memos to the Minister from SpAds or senior civil servants; that is crucial in all of this.
Was any detail provided to the Minister or her special adviser about the risks potentially associated with this scheme? None of that was available to any of the rest of us. We certainly had no access to whistle-blower's letters, notes or minutes of any meetings held as a consequence of that. Much has been made of that too. We had no ministerial power to alter significant policy controls and checks to the RHI schemes. Let us have it all out there, not selective leaking to the media and slippy auld press briefings. All the detail should be investigated in full and before the public eye.
I have now to place on record my knowledge, based on information provided by officials to all members of the ETI Committee. Indeed, a number of them are in the Chamber and were here for parts of the debate.
The sequence of events on the RHI, as we know, is as follows. In November 2012, the scheme was introduced to the non-domestic sector. Later, in December 2014, it was introduced to the domestic sector. On 11 April 2013, the Committee asked the Department to provide biannual updates on the implementation of the scheme. That resulted in an update being received more than one year later, on 5 June 2014, and later still, on 4 November 2014. Despite requests for updates on a biannual basis, the Department did not consider it necessary to provide further progress reports or updates to the Committee. Who was Minister?
The June 2014 briefing to the Committee stated:
It went on to state:
"this suggests that the Northern Ireland RHI could experience a higher volume of applications but for smaller installations. Projecting forward it could be expected that around 300 applications could be received by end March 2015."
Five months later, in November 2014, the briefing, again from the Department, stated:
"as of 15 October 2014 [Ofgem] have received 308 applications."
Fact. Therefore, in November 2014, applications had already exceeded expectations for the projected March 2015 date. What was done at departmental level? Who was Minister? The alarm bells were clearly ringing at that stage.
Officials informed the Committee on 9 February 2016 that the process of thinking about the issue and asking questions began in March 2015, when it was noticed that the level of applications was rising — three months after the Department had informed the Committee of the very same fact. Officials said that the Minister was formally made aware of the problem in July last year. We wonder what the informal briefings contained. That was followed by the consultation on 22 July, which contained a proposal to introduce, among other things, demand-management measures from November 2015.
Given the fact that demand exceeded expectations and that this was apparent from as far back as at least November 2014, did anyone in the Department work out the impact of the announcement or think at least to ask this question: what impact will this July announcement have on the level of applications between now and February and the introduction of new measures in November? On the back of that, what advice was provided by the departmental officials to the Minister?
Even on 3 September 2015, the Enterprise Committee received a briefing on the RHI amendment regulations that continued to refer to the "recent success".
We are here today to discuss the scandal around the renewable heat incentive scheme — a scheme that saw hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money going up in smoke and hundreds of millions of pounds given to businesses in a lucrative handout that encouraged them to burn to earn.
It is a scheme that gave money to a car showroom with Ferraris out the front There are empty sheds with 12 heaters on at full blast. It is money down the drain while people are homeless or lie on waiting beds in our cramped hospitals. This is not just a scandal but a crime against the people of this region.
These are the questions that everyone wants answered. Who benefited from the scheme? How many people linked to the Executive parties benefited from the scheme? Where does the money trail lead you? I support the motion, but I also call for immediate elections. It is the only move that now makes sense. The Executive have lost the confidence of the electorate, and people are outraged. They are furious. The people of the North should now have the chance to register that disgust at the ballot box.
Last week, the First Minister said, arrogantly, that she has nothing to hide, but she certainly does. She was the architect of this whole scheme. She intervened on several occasions to keep the scheme in operation despite warnings from senior civil servants and others about it. This is not some administrative error or something on which Arlene can pass the buck. Nowhere else in the world would allow politicians to get away with this. Her position is untenable.
She should do the decent thing and step down. If she does not, we will have to ask this: where is the accountability? People are beginning to draw the conclusion that it is one rule for the Executive and another for everybody else. When teachers went on strike a few weeks ago, they were told that the money was not there. When welfare reform was rammed through, people were lied to and told that there was no money to pay their benefits. People in my constituency are unable to afford to heat their home and have to choose between heating and eating this winter. We find out that, all the while, quite literally, money was being burned. There was £485 million squandered on this scheme. What does that say about the priorities of this Executive?
Only one question needs answered today. Either there is a culture of gross incompetency in the Executive, or there is an endemic culture of corruption. Which is it? Time after time, Stormont has been racked by scandal: Red Sky, NAMA, the social investment fund and now RHI. People can be hauled in front of investigations and asked about every aspect of their life if they are on benefits and are asked every detail of their life to try to catch them out. However, if you are a big company, you can avail yourself of a scheme that gives you cash for ash, and, if you are a politician, you can just sweep it under the rug. You could not make it up.
People are right to have no confidence in our politicians when they see this kind of behaviour. The Executive cannot be trusted to lead any inquiry. It must be a public inquiry that is totally independent and has access to all the relevant documentation and personnel. We want to see all the books opened not only for the RHI but for NAMA, SIF and Red Sky. If Stormont will not do that, it will only fuel an angry public that believe some are once again trying to cover up and protect their own interests. People are sick and tired of this Executive. They want real change and answers from the Executive, not lip service.
As we look across the world, we see establishment politics everywhere in decline and in crisis. The Executive should seriously consider that they, too, may feel the backlash from frustrated people in the near future.
There is no doubt that it has been an incredibly difficult time over the past two weeks for anyone involved in politics. It is quite clear that the public are, quite rightly, angry about a scheme that, with hindsight, was poorly designed and badly administered. It is remarkable to hear that some of the individuals who sat either as Chair or members of the ETI Committee or Members of the House who voted through that scheme are now looking back, being wise after the event and claiming that they knew it was wrong all along. It is a remarkable thing that of everyone, including the external experts who gave guidance on this, the officials who were in the energy department and the media — all those individuals — no one flagged up any problems at the beginning of the scheme. That is why some of the hyperbole that has been around today is hard to stomach.
What we heard from my colleague Joanne Bunting was a thoughtful and considered first contribution to the Assembly, and I think that it was one that shows that she will be a valuable asset to the Chamber. That stands in sharp contrast to the antics we saw from other Members this morning when the opposition parties, to a man and woman, walked out of the Chamber and lodged a protest outside giving interviews to the media. It was pantomime politics at its very best, and it shows that opposition parties are more interested in stunts than solutions.
Again, I hear the leader of the Alliance Party chirping away in the background. I listened to her contribution, and she must have had 10 or 11 questions she wanted answered. Her constituents would quite rightly have expected her to turn up this morning when the First Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and to ask those questions and get them answered, but she did not. She chose instead to go out to the Great Hall and give an interview about a range of issues that, quite frankly, the public could not care less about.
It is becoming increasingly clear, as this has gone on and on, that the First Minister in her current and previous roles acted at all times with the highest regard. She has not done anything wrong, she acted appropriately at all times, as, indeed, her permanent secretary said in front of the PAC, and she has made herself available to answer all those questions.
In the last two weeks, we have also had the rather embarrassing circumstances in which leaders of the Opposition have put themselves on the airwaves not to make an informed contribution but to ask presenters questions about what is going on.
I know that, for some individuals, the old habit of asking questions rather than trying to answer them, dies hard, but what we had was not an opposition-driven policy or an attempt to hold the Executive to account; it was a media-driven thing, and some of the opposition parties tried to jump on the bandwagon.
I have just heard Mr Carroll make a comment that the First Minister was trying to sweep these issues under the carpet. As soon as the issue became live, the First Minister gave an interview from China, where she was trying to get more jobs and investment for Northern Ireland to help our economy. She said that she will waive convention and go in front of the PAC, which is not something that you would do if you had anything to hide. Over the weekend, she supported an independent investigation into everything that is going on in the RHI scheme. She has been working with the Economy Minister to try to make sure that we have something in place in early January to stop the costs of the scheme and reduce the cost.
We also heard some ill-informed commentary from Ms Bradley and Mr Carroll on the £400 million being squandered — it is not. I do not know how many times they have to be told before they understand that not all of this money has been spent. That is exactly why the First Minister and the Economy Minister are working to try to reduce that cost.
Today, we had the First Minister recalling the Assembly to give a statement and answer questions. When she did, what did other Members do? They walked away. They abandoned their seats, and they failed to discharge their duties or ask the questions that their voters might, quite rightly, want them to ask. The public care very little about procedures, points of order or Standing Orders. What they saw this morning was a First Minister making herself available to answer questions, and opposition parties running away and failing to ask them.
Let me make some final comments about what we have in front of us. This is an exclusion motion; it is not a vote of no confidence. It is nothing other than an exclusion motion —
— which is used for the most serious of offences. Mrs Foster has not been found guilty of any offence. She has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing. We absolutely want the facts to come out, we want to support the PAC investigation, we want an independent commission and we want fairness.
We have been called back from recess, supposedly to help to restore the public's confidence in our Government. Today's events and lack of action from the First Minister and the Executive to tackle the RHI issue have no doubt diminished the reputation of these institutions even further. We now have to wait for some unspecified time in the new year until we see an action plan for RHI and a Budget for this Government. We needed to see leadership today from the First Minister and the Executive. The Opposition are doing their part by playing their role in holding this Government to account. We have raised this issue again and again in recent months, and now the BBC, via 'Spotlight' and 'The Nolan Show', has got its teeth into the story. I pay tribute to its journalistic endeavours because the issue is now rightly on top of everyone's agenda.
Some 251,000 people sat up to watch Stephen Nolan's exposé last Thursday night, which is testament not only to the theatre of good journalism but to the interest and concern of the people of Northern Ireland in getting to the bottom of this mess.
This scandal — let us be in doubt that it is a scandal — has hit home with people much more than the litany of previous allegations and problems that have beset this Government. The spat between Mr Bell and Mrs Foster was certainly jaw-dropping television. On the waste of money, he said that DUP SpAds overruled him; she said that it was his decision alone. On the emails, he said that DUP SpAds tried to change the email evidence trail; she said that there was no attempt to remove references to her Department and OFMDFM. On the row, he said that she was hostile and abusive; she said that he was physically intimidating. However, the focus must not be on the personality fight between, in their words, "aggressive" Bell and "hostile" Arlene. The critical issue is the £485 million of our money that has been needlessly committed — the key word is "committed" — to a damaged scheme.
Who is responsible? Who is accountable for this debacle? Did the penny really drop only when the Treasury refused to pay the overspend? Was it OK to fleece the UK Treasury? They are our taxes too, do not forget, but the you know what hit the fan only when the block grant was impacted. This is why we need a full investigation. The public demand answers, and, this time, we cannot and will not be punted into the long grass. It is also why the First Minister cannot credibly continue in her role until this scandal has been properly investigated. This time, the scale of the failure is so enormous and so unique that it requires an exceptional response.
Although, of course, a First Minister standing aside in Northern Ireland is not exceptional. We have been here before, and Mrs Foster has played a key role not once, but twice. This time, it is different. Previously, Mrs Foster stepped in for Mr Robinson for a period of six weeks — the maximum allowed — in order for Mr Robinson to deal with his family difficulties resulting from his wife's actions, and, more recently, as a political tactic to get him and his party out of a hole. This time, Mrs Foster must stand aside to account for her own actions — her responsibility for the design and outworkings of the disastrous RHI scheme.
This is about leadership, as I said at the start. The First Minister needs to think of what is best for Northern Ireland, not what is best for herself as a leader or for the DUP. It is not party first but country first. Brazening it out is not a sign of strength but of weakness. The DUP can, of course, vote against everyone else and win a pyrrhic victory which will only further undermine public confidence and, understandably, push the public towards the Trumpism of wanting to drain the swamp. Who could blame them?
In conclusion, the public expect action on this issue. They rightly want an apology, action to mitigate the liability to the public purse and to see those who were responsible be accountable for their actions. First Minister, this happened on your watch, under your leadership. You need to go until the scandal has been fully investigated. I support the motion.
The First Minister clearly does not get it. Otherwise, she would not be trying to spread the blame to everyone but herself. The public and the taxpayer certainly get it, because they see to the heart of the matter that it was the Minister, and no one else, who signed off this flawed scheme, and who consciously and deliberately took out the tariff-tiering that was in the GB template and put in only the high tariff, who was the author of this squander made in Stormont. There is no hiding place for the First Minister on that seminal issue, because it is her signature, and hers alone, which signed off the scheme on 13 April 2012 when she signed the declaration which stated:
"I have read the Regulatory Impact Assessment and I am satisfied that the benefits justify the costs".
That is signed by Arlene Foster, Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. It is not signed by some hapless civil servant or some nameless consultant. It is signed by the Minister. Yet, when faced with the consequences of her negligence, she says, "Oh, it's the civil servants' fault" or "It's a consultant's fault". It was even Mr McGlone's fault; it is all our faults. But, it is not Arlene's fault. Sorry, Arlene Foster and Arlene Foster alone signed the scheme into existence, and, from that flows the runaway nature of the scheme and the debt of the future.
She did not just fail there. In 2013, Cambridge Economic Policy Associates said, "You need to get tiered tariffs into the scheme". The Department, under Arlene Foster's watch, ignored it. In 2014, Ofgem said the same, "You need to get tiered tariffs into the scheme". On Arlene's watch, that was ignored. When the scheme was approved in 2012 by DFP's Supply officer, the letter of approval said the scheme must be reapproved in March 2015. The responsibility for ensuring that that happened rested with DETI, but it did not happen — because, again, asleep at the wheel — and the opportunity to correct it, to catch on and to get the tiering into it was missed.
All the Department can say is, "Administrative oversight". No, not administrative oversight: Minister asleep at the wheel.
Then, lo and behold, when suddenly they catch on that it needed to be reapproved, it is finally sent to DFP. Who is the Minister by that stage in DFP? Mrs Arlene Foster. And who, in October 2015 — I remind the House that this is at the height of the spike in applications — is the Minister heading the Department that reapproves the scheme? Mrs Arlene Foster. So, whether in DETI or DFP, she is asleep at the wheel.
Thank you. We heard some nonsense today that some of us voted against the closure of the scheme. No, we did not. We voted against the closure of the amended scheme —
— the scheme that was amended in November, that had the tiers put into it, that was then rectified and became a fair scheme. That is the scheme that was closed in February 2016, not the scheme in its original form with its runaway expenditure. That is the scheme that the DUP brought in and that the Minister repeatedly endorsed.
We have heard much talk of affirmation, "Oh, we want public inquiries". Do you? If you do, then you will commit to one under the Inquiries Act, because only such an inquiry can call and compel witnesses.
There are DUP Members on these Benches who could tell a lot about this scheme, who could tell about their party donors who have benefited. Lord Morrow, the party chairman, has disappeared. He could tell us quite a lot about party donors who have benefited.
There are other Members on those Benches whose friends and family benefited from this scheme, as well as the friends and family of SpAds, but it is everyone's fault but theirs.
If Mr Allister had stayed in the Chamber as opposed to trotting out at the back of the flock like a little sheep, he would have heard what the First Minister had to say. The First Minister said that she was sorry that the initial scheme did not contain cost control measures, that there were fundamental flaws in its design, that it was the deepest political regret of her time in the House and that, as Minister, she accepted responsibility for the work of the Department during her time at DETI.
At least the First Minister is taking responsibility. Mr Allister, on the other hand, whenever it came to voting on this scheme, pushed and pressed that it was kept open until the end of March —
What we have today are the actions of a lynch mob.
Here we have the First Minister, who has come before the House, and there is no evidence whatsoever against her at this point, but we have a demand that she stands down, moves away and cannot do her job.
Let us go through the proper way of doing things, which we have grown up with in this United Kingdom — the British way of doing things. That is, that people are found innocent until proven otherwise.
Mrs Foster has done her job in an exceptional way in all the positions that she has held. She has been a superb First Minister. I find it absolutely amazing that, when we actually have a woman First Minister, so many women want to drum her out of office. That is a disgraceful action on the part of those Members. Mrs Foster has done an exceptional job as the First Minister, and we will be backing her. She will not be going anywhere. She will not be stepping aside. Get the message, folks: she will not be stepping aside. Also get the message in relation to the reviews of this: there will not be a public inquiry; there will be an open and transparent inquiry.
I will tell you why there will not be a public inquiry. When I took on the office of Health, I was informed that Minister McGimpsey had asked for a public inquiry on hyponatremia. Mr Allister, who has just jeered me, asked a question the other day about how much that has cost so far. I think that the answer was around £15 million.
Thirteen million pounds. Let us hear it again: £13 million to get the answers on hyponatremia. That was asked for something like eight years ago, and we have still not heard those answers.
No, I will not give way. I do not have time. We have not heard those answers. The truth is that hyponatremia issues have been dealt with by all the health services responsible to ensure that the mistakes that happened then are not repeated. Let us be very clear: we do not need to get into a process that lasts seven or eight years to seek answers or to spend tens of millions to identify the answers, so we will not be going down that route. You can jeer all you like, but that is just not on the table. I will give way now.
I think that everybody in the House knows the issues of collective responsibility. Where you have those cross-departmental issues, those kick into place. I can assure the Member that, as a Minister, I made the decisions and no SpAds made the decisions for me. I hope that, when Mr Kennedy was a Minister, no SpAds made decisions for him. That is just a fact of life. I made the decisions. I stood over my decisions, which were sometimes right and, on the odd occasion, wrong.
I will take Mr Kennedy's word for that, but I do recall that, when he was in office, the lights were off even though someone was at home. We can all castigate various parties. The truth is that today has been unbefitting of the House. We have had walkouts, temper tantrums, grandstanding and all of those things. That does not add anything to the House. In fact, the opposition has come from —
I rise to speak as the independent Member for East Londonderry. The events that have unfolded today and throughout the past week are a farce. I would kick the house of cards down myself if Northern Ireland did not have so much to lose. Let it not be forgotten by all sides of the House that I have the capability to do just that. I did not come back this morning because I did not want to take part in a theatre. I was elected to serve the people of East Londonderry and then as Justice Minister to serve the people of Northern Ireland. I am so privileged and fortunate in both roles given to me. I was therefore deeply embarrassed, as a Member of the Assembly, to witness the antics this morning and the consistent berating of each other. People are angry, disappointed and weary, and they should be.
Regrettably, it seems that we are demonstrating contempt for the people of Northern Ireland. I do not speak for others, only myself, when I say that I am sorry that we as an Assembly have not been able to do what they expect of us and deserve from us.
When I was elected in May, I promised my constituents that I would address issues relating to older people, children and young people, domestic violence and mental health. I believe that I am fulfilling those promises with my Executive colleagues. I will stand by my recent comments that the Executive were working because, for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement, there is genuine acknowledgement among government partners that we must work together in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, and we were. That is what the people want from us. It is what they expect from us.
Nonetheless, the controversy surrounding the RHI scheme is devastating. The commentary is shocking. Allegations of corruption and cronyism make me feel sick. The potential cost is unfathomable. I certainly support a full independent investigation, judicially led if necessary, to clarify and substantiate information that is now in the public domain and, indeed, that which is not. We must also seek to mitigate the devastating financial effects of this flawed scheme.
I will not support the motion tabled by the Opposition and smaller parties because I believe it to be premature. You ask me to support a motion that excludes the First Minister on the basis of no confidence: my confidence or, indeed, lack of confidence in the First Minister will be based on substantiated information, not allegations manifested in the media. It would be remiss of me, particularly as Justice Minister, to pass judgement without a full investigation or hearing. No court in the land would do so, so why is it appropriate to do so in the House today before a fair independent investigation? The motion is premature.
If you will indulge me, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a point for the record. This morning, as Justice Minister, I asked my permanent secretary to investigate allegations made in the media yesterday suggesting that, in the previous mandate, the Department of Justice, amongst others, was informed of the flaws of the scheme. I am not suggesting that we table a motion for exclusion of those highlighted in the article, but I will suggest that we have an investigation that takes into account all Departments, Ministers, special advisers, officials and others and defines what knowledge, if any, they had of the flaws of the scheme, what they were aware of through any means, whether they were alerted to concerns about the scheme and whether they acted on that knowledge.
Not yet. Public confidence in our institution is at its lowest. I regret to say that this is a house of cards. It is fragile. I do not believe that a successful motion today would ensure public confidence. It would bring the cards down. I am not sure that any of us would get up again. The people who would suffer most are the people of Northern Ireland. What we need to do to ensure confidence is to announce a full independent investigation.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Ms Sugden started speaking as an independent Member and then chose to speak as Minister. She referred to events in the Department whilst I was Minister of Justice and declined to take an intervention. I want to put it on the record that I am absolutely content, having had a discussion with the permanent secretary this morning, that any papers involving my time in the Department of Justice should be released to a judicial-led public inquiry at the earliest possible time.
This is an extremely serious turn of events for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the political institutions. It is right that Ministers should be held accountable for their actions in and out of office. It is right that public scrutiny should occur. It is right that people should ask questions where they see issues and where they think that things have gone awry. That is healthy in a democracy. That is how a democracy should function. It is regrettable, therefore, after more than a week of people taking to the air waves, casting aspersions and demanding answers from the First Minister and that she bring herself here to make herself accountable, that Mr Farry, in his contribution, said that he would look for a proper forum for accountability: this is the proper forum. This is the Northern Ireland Assembly. We are sent here to govern for the people of this country.
If there is a proper forum for holding Ministers to account, it is here. People —
Bad luck, Stephen.
This is the forum, and people had the opportunity this morning. After ten days of accusing the First Minister of all sorts, of accusing her of going to ground and hiding, and all of that sort of language that was being used, she came here and made herself amenable to all of the people who have made those claims about her. She sat there, she gave an account of herself and she offered all of you the opportunity to ask her questions. The response?
I listened to the First Minister give an account of herself, and Members had the opportunity this morning. She made herself open and available for any questions, and they chose; they chose not to take the opportunity. Now, I understand; I have been in politics for a very long time and I understand that it would be easier and more convenient, perhaps, to go on the airwaves and make allegations, but if you wanted questions answered, you should have availed of the opportunity that the First Minister gave for you to ask them.
During the course of the debate, I heard several contributions that indicate to me that the people who are talking about accountability and questions that need answering are not really interested in the answers. They do not really care about the answers. For some people, this is about base politics. It is about trying to topple the First Minister and bring down the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. I listened to Mrs Long's contribution, and she was perfectly reasonable in what she said, but other Members' contributions were truthfully, if we are being honest about it, malice dressed up as fairness. They are not really interested in the answers. What people want is a scalp. They want to bring down the First Minister as a scalp, as a political notch — and that is not going to happen.
I welcome that she said there would be an independent inquiry into all of these matters and I hope it gets to the bottom of all of them, and that all of the paperwork and the email trails and what have you are put out there for people to see, so that they can make their own mind up. It is clear to me, from a number of contributions in the House, not least by the Member for North Antrim, for whom, quite frankly, Arlene Foster could make every day 12 July and you still would not be happy with her.
As it happens, I was in England at the weekend, and I am sorry to report that we are, collectively, a laughing stock. I was picking my son up after his first term at university, and I remember my first term at uni in England in the seventies. It was very difficult with the Troubles in full flow; everybody was suspicious of anybody from Northern Ireland. Of course, thankfully, we have moved on from that, but now we have replaced suspicion with derision. They know about it, and we are all tarred with the same brush. This is about the integrity of the institutions. It is about our collective reputation.
I ask the members of the Democratic Unionist Party to consider this: what have you done? You have made Gerry Adams the white knight. Gerry Adams stood forward over the weekend and said, "I am the man who will protect the reputation and credibility of these institutions", and you have done that; you have done that.
I listened to the First Minister over the weekend say that she looked forward to coming to the Chamber today to tell us about the plan that means that we will not lose £400 million. I read her speech and there is no plan. Even if there was —
I will make some progress first.
Even if there was, could we believe the DUP? It had a plan to save the United Airlines flight to Newark, except there was no plan at all and it knew it and had to issue a ministerial directive to try to make it happen. We have a plan. There is a precedent at Westminster of introducing a windfall tax against excessive energy costs, and perhaps Westminster should consider doing the same with this. There is a convention that says they do not interfere with devolved matters but, of course, in the Fresh Start Agreement, there is that commitment that the Government will legislate to make sure that we do not bring forward an imbalanced Budget again in the future. There is a precedent for this Executive having their homework marked by the big boys in London.
We have another plan, not just the one to ask Mrs Foster to stand aside. What about the special advisers? Should Mr Johnston, Mr Bullick and Dr Crawford not be on gardening leave? Is it right that they are still in the Department doing what they are doing as we investigate these issues? I welcome the fact that Claire Sugden has at least finally spoken on the issue, although I would prefer something a little more definite.
Mrs Foster says that she cannot be across every jot and tittle. I accept that Ministers do not have to do all the detail. Ministers are there to do policy. What was the decision to take control of renewables from DECC, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, in London? That was Mrs Foster's policy decision. What was it when the Department decided that it would not cut and paste and adopt the successful GB model? That was a policy decision, not a jot or a tittle. It was a decision by Mrs Foster on policy. Of course, it was a policy decision to adopt what we now know was the fatally flawed renewable heat incentive in Northern Ireland with no cost control, as Mr Eastwood pointed out in his contribution. That was in section 9 of the GB scheme and could have been cut and pasted. Simply put, that digression model works very simply. If there is one pound and only one person applies, they get the full pound, but if 100 people apply, they get a penny each. That protects the integrity of your pot of money. On Planet Foster, everybody who applied got the full pound, and that is why we are in the mess that we are in. Either her fingers are all over these policies or she was asleep at the wheel. Either way, she has to stand aside.
The colleagues to my left have brought renewables into disrepute. Hundreds of people availed themselves of the scheme in good faith and now feel that they are being looked upon as criminals when they are not. It is your fault. You brought forward the scheme.
I do not have time to reflect on everybody's contributions during a three-hour debate. Some of the contributions from the members of the Democratic Unionist Party are the most interesting to reflect on, not least that of Mrs Foster, who called the RHI a "debacle". Indeed, Conor Murphy said that it was badly conceived. She said, as others have, that this is about a ministerial scalp. It is not about a ministerial scalp. It is about ministerial responsibility — if it is to have any meaning in these institutions, Mrs Foster must do the honourable thing. She is complaining about trial by television. Why did she bother taking part? Why did she walk into the trial and give the interview? She wanted to distract from the issues, did she not? The Bell/Foster spat is nothing more than a mere distraction. She says that we have not yet established the truth, yet, in her contribution, she said that the truth is being twisted out of all recognition. How does she know that it is being twisted if she does not know what the truth is?
She did not mention the email that may be her undoing, sent by the whistle-blower on 3 September 2013 to firstname.lastname@example.org, which includes this line:
"the incentive to use more is leading to misuse in some cases".
Evidence in black and white that there was a fatal flaw in the scheme, identified by the whistle-blower, who said that it only took her five minutes on the Internet to discover the problem. She emailed the First Minister in early September 2013.
Mr Givan says that you are innocent until proven guilty — unless you are Jonathan Bell, of course, Mr Givan. The DUP are lily-white. Never mind Red Sky, NAMA, the social investment fund and all the other scandals that have preceded the renewable heat incentive. Mr Givan wants to blame the media. Well, if he thinks that the BBC is at fault, he should complain to Ofcom.
Michelle O'Neill said that the DUP is missing the public mood and then talked about the delivery of the Executive. Did anybody see the tweet from the Northern Ireland Executive on Friday? It said:
"This week the Executive has ... secured good deal for fisheries, announced €23 million on greenways and secured an £8 million contract with 170 jobs."
Did they mention £400 million of an overspend on RHI? No, they did not. How about the £13 million overspend on the social investment fund? No, they did not. They are very capable of spinning.
Lord Morrow, in his magnificent contribution, said that some people are intent on generating a whole lot of heat. He talked about politicians grabbing headlines, spinning and exaggerating. At Christmas time, it was nice to be reminded of the antics of the late Dr Ian Paisley.
Jenny Palmer spoke, as you would expect, as someone who has been subjected to character assassination.
From Mr Hamilton, our Economy Minister, there was no acceptance of ministerial accountability. He said that this is all happening at the behest of his political opponents. However, Sinn Féin wants it. Are they opponents? What a remarkable statement.
Joanne Bunting, making her maiden speech, after all this time, talked about fairness and natural justice. Once again, is that being afforded to Mr Bell? There was no mention or acknowledgement of the whistle-blower.
Mr Poots talked about a lynch mob. Well, I can assure him that there are no members of the Third Force on these Benches. There are no red berets under our beds.
In conclusion, in the absence of a fresh inquiry, the Public Accounts Committee is the only show in town. I urge the members of PAC not to vote today. Do not allow yourself to be accused of being compromised. Mrs Foster says that this is a "debacle". The 'Oxford English Dictionary' defines that as "a sudden and ignominious failure". It is a story of incompetence, ineptitude and haplessness.
Mr Speaker, we will now vote. Those who go that way are voting for their career. Those who go this way are voting for the integrity of these institutions.
Members, before we proceed to the Question, I remind you that this motion requires cross-community support.
Question put. The Assembly divided:
Mr Attwood, Ms S Bradley, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Ms Hanna, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McNulty, Mr McPhillips, Ms Mallon, Mr Mullan
Mr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Mr Chambers, Mrs Dobson, Mr Hussey, Mr Kennedy, Mr McKee, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mrs Palmer, Mr Smith
Mr Agnew, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Carroll, Mr Dickson, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr E McCann
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Aiken, Mr McNulty
Mr Anderson, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mrs Little Pengelly, Ms Lockhart, Mr Logan, Mr Lyons, Mr McCausland, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Ms Sugden, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan, Mr Robinson
|Nationalist Votes||12||Nationalist Ayes||12||[100.0%]|
|Unionist Votes||51||Unionist Ayes||15||[29.4%]|
|Other Votes||12||Other Ayes||12||[100.0%]|
Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).
Adjourned at 4.16 pm.