Arlene Foster’s former special adviser Stephen Brimstone removed a new wood pellet boiler from his new house in order to install a similar boiler to make himself eligible for the RHI scheme, it was last night alleged.
TUV leader Jim Allister made the allegation while speaking under privilege in the Assembly chamber just about an hour before the DUP’s MLAs voted through a legally ambitious plan to retrospectively rein in the costs of the scheme.
Mr Allister said that Mr Brimstone – who Mrs Foster appointed as one of four DUP Spads in Stormont Castle last year, three years after an Assembly inquiry reprimanded him for being “deliberately evasive” – had used the non-domestic scheme to make his claim.
He said it was “the sort of rip-off that brings disrepute to all of the scheme” and “causes great injury to the bona fide users”.
At the time of going to press there had been no DUP response to the allegations.
Mr Allister told MLAs that Mr Brimstone was “benefiting” under the scheme which Mrs Foster had signed off by “heating his house on the non-domestic boiler scheme”.
He asked: “Did he claim that he had a few sheep and was a sheep farmer? Does he have sheep? One thing is for sure: he is heating his own house.
“Is that right? Is that how things should be under this scheme?
“Was this scheme so lax and so perforated that that was an OK thing to do? Even if the individual thought it morally the right thing to do, does this scheme permit that?
“If it does, is that not one of the loopholes that the minister should have addressed in these regulations? It is scandalous that someone can purport to qualify for the non-domestic renewable heat scheme and devote the greater bulk of the heat that they produce to heating their own house, and to do it with considerable forethought.”
Mr Allister went on: “Mr Brimstone built a new house some years ago. He had a biomass boiler in it, but he took it out to qualify for this scheme, because you had to have a new boiler.
“He put in a new non-domestic scheme boiler under the scheme in order to qualify. That is the sort of rip-off that brings disrepute to all of the scheme and, sadly, causes great injury to the bona fide users.”
Under the RHI scheme rules, it was possible to use a non-domestic boiler to heat a house in certain circumstances as an “ancillary” purpose.
Robin Swann, the UUP chairman of Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee, pointed out that during its investigation into the RHI debacle it had been told by Ofgem, which administered the scheme, that the non-domestic scheme’s rules were so poorly drawn up that it might be possible to argue that it was within the law for someone to heat their house with a non-domestic boiler even if 99% of the heat from that boiler was going to the dwelling house.
Mr Allister also said that Mr Brimstone had personally recommended the RHI scheme to a poultry farmer constituent of his in North Antrim “in the early days of the scheme”.
He said that the man was an example of “genuine people who did no more than become aware of a government scheme and applied for it in good faith”, adding that “some of these people are at their wits’ end”.
Mr Allister said that the farmer had an entirely legitimate use for the heat and had taken out substantial bank loans for investment in his farm by using the collateral of the 20-year RHI income.
Now, Mr Allister told the Assembly, that man has found that “the rug has been pulled from under him”.
When Mr Brimstone left his post – just about a fortnight before the BBC Spotlight film about the RHI scheme – Stormont Castle described him as a “valued member of staff”.
Three years ago, when investigating allegations that Mr Brimstone had bullied his then DUP colleague Jenny Palmer over the firm Red Sky, an Assembly committee found that he had been “deliberately evasive” when giving evidence to the committee.
Meanwhile, another DUP Spad, Timothy Johnston, has dismissed the latest allegations from former DUP minister Jonathan Bell under Assembly privilege. Mr Bell said he had been told by a DUP member that the RHI scheme “was kept open because [senior DUP Spad] Timothy Johnston’s brother was installing the boilers”.
The DUP issued a near-immediate rebuttal of that allegation: “For the avoidance of doubt, Timothy Johnston’s brother does not [and]never has installed boilers, does not work in this sector and has not been involved in any RHI issues whatsoever.
“We challenge Mr Bell to produce a shred of evidence outside the chamber.”