20th February 2017

‘Right of Reply’ Letter-

On behalf of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and the thousands of farming families it represents across Northern Ireland, I want to challenge your report from Saturday headlined ‘RHI Scandal – Officials highlighted cost of fuel to UFU before spike’.

Your reporting of the RHI overspend seems to be now focussed on drawing in farmers, to the exclusion of the designers of the scheme and other individuals and organisations that made use of this scheme. This is despite the fact that farmers were encouraged by the government and by the poultry processing business to which they were contracted to use the RHI scheme with the aim of reducing costs and make their business more green, and therefore more acceptable to consumer.

In the reporting there is confusion about the role of the UFU, and an attempt to dramatise e-mails.  These are not new and are already in the public domain; the UFU made no attempt to hide its role, and indeed we have publicly stated on a number of occasions that we pressed for a grace period for farmers who had already embarked on very significant capital investments to complete these projects.  We were also one of the first to warn of the spike in applications, and of the potential consequences.

The RHI tariff and cost figures in your own article (with a return of 6.3p/KWH for a total cost of between 6.5 and 7.8p/KWH) make clear how dependent the RHI is on subsidies.  To that end it is no different to other renewable energy schemes.  Farmers were already in the process of making substantial investments, well into six figures, and were unable to apply to the scheme until those were completed.  That is why we believed then, and still do believe, that to change the rules and tariffs while those projects were in the pipeline would have been deeply unfair.  It is our role to lobby for fair treatment for our members, and that is what we did.  It is not our role to second guess the competence of civil servants and politicians designing a scheme.

You make much of a document written by the College of Agriculture,Food and Rural Enterprise , but it is no surprise that these officials should have been looking at the potential costs/benefits of this scheme. Indeed, the poultry industry had been fully aware of this cost/return information and the dependence on the RHI tariff at that time when they had started on their investment plans – as any sound business decision should be taken. You are seeking to find something sinister where nothing sinister exists.  I think there is a huge misunderstanding prevailing about the scale of the investment farmers made to use the RHI, and the fact that the scheme only became controversially attractive when oil prices and consequently wood chip and pellet prices fell.  Failure to reflect the volatility of energy markets in the RHI scheme was not the fault of farmers or the UFU, but of those who designed a scheme with inadequate safeguards.

As taxpayers, farmers welcome the investigation of public money being spent without the necessary checks and balances.  But to seek to blame farmers for this is unfair and wrong.  It also ignores completely what the figures you published highlight.  Those figures fully justify why we needed to press for fair treatment for farmers who had taken on hundreds of thousands of pounds of debt to respond to market and government signals by installing wood fired boilers.  It is also wrong to highlight the role of individuals.  Tom Forgrave is unpaid as a chair of our poultry committee.  In that role he seeks to represent and defend his fellow farmers.  He also liaised between contracted poultry farmers and Moy Park when the RHI scheme was being introduced and implemented.  To seek to blame him for that role is unfair and wrong.  Chris Osborne is a staff member of the UFU and in that role he seeks to support farmers in the renewable energy sector.  It is wrong to try to draw our staff members into what has become a media frenzy around a political debate.

We still firmly believe that the focus of investigations needs to be on how such a badly designed scheme was put in place.  Instead, what is happening now is an attempt to divert the focus from politicians and civil servants to farmers and others who entered the RHI scheme in good faith. Fault with the RHI lies at Stormont and with a minority allegedly abusing the scheme- we have repeatedly called for urgent audits to be undertaken and these individuals identified and penalised.  Please use your investigatory skills to highlight this, rather than for an ill-founded attack of farmers.

Wesley Aston

UFU Chief Executive