Ulster Farmer's Union grilled over failure to identify serious flaws in RHI scheme earlier

Chris Osborne, Ulster Farmers’ Union senior policy officer, was questioned by members of the inquiry
Chris Osborne, Ulster Farmers’ Union senior policy officer, was questioned by members of the inquiry

Allan Preston

The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) has defended its failure to spot abuse of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) sooner.

Two senior members of the agricultural union appeared before the public inquiry into the botched green energy scheme yesterday.

Chris Osborne, the UFU's senior policy officer, and Wesley Aston, its chief executive, were both challenged about how they failed to see the RHI scheme's flaws, and a controversial call by the UFU to reintroduce the top rate of payments.

In September 2011, Mr Osborne attended a Department for Enterprise (Deti) presentation on renewable energy.

He noted at the time that introducing RHI in Northern Ireland would create a danger of over-incentivisation.

The union favoured an upfront payment model instead of the rolling subsidy Deti would pick.

It also opposed choosing energy regulator Ofgem to administer RHI in Northern Ireland, preferring a local provider.

Despite these objections, Mr Osborne wrote a newspaper article a year later advising that RHI would be "an excellent opportunity" for farmers.

At the time, the UFU knew the scheme lacked a cost control known as tiering, which was used in the Great Britain scheme.

It also realised RHI would be attractive to intensive heat users, such as farmers in the poultry industry.

Asked why the lack of tiering didn't cause alarm, Mr Osborne said Deti and farmers on the ground weren't raising such concerns with the UFU.

Junior counsel for the inquiry, Donal Lunny, questioned how realistic an expectation it would be to expect farmers to complain they were being paid too much.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin said that he found it hard to believe a senior policy officer with the UFU didn't know how lucrative the scheme was.

Mr Osborne admitted he was "surprised" when he finally realised that in the summer of 2015.

At that time, Deti officials made the decision to cut RHI subsidies in the autumn.

The UFU called for a slight delay to this, in consideration to farmers who had already made plans to install boilers.

Deti officials told Mr Osborne, however, that they needed to take drastic action to save public money.

Mr Osborne said the UFU chose to keep supporting members who had invested in RHI boilers.

Recently, the UFU also called for the original subsidies on offer to be reinstated.

Asked how this was a responsible position for the union, Mr Osborne said voting any other way would be like "turkeys voting for Christmas".

Mr Aston later faced questions about emails he sent to DUP adviser Dr Andrew Crawford about RHI in January last year.

They showed the extent of contact between Deti officials and the UFU in the summer of 2015.

Mr Aston said he had nothing to hide regarding the emails, but he didn't realise they would be leaked to the media.

He told the panel it didn't occur to him the DUP might use them to shift attention towards Deti officials.

Mr Lunny pressed Mr Aston if the UFU regretted pressing for a delay of the cuts to the scheme in 2015.

Mr Aston said he regretted the outcome, the large spike in applications and waste to public money, but he repeated the point that UFU members entered the scheme in good faith.

"We feel aggrieved as farmers that what should have been a good scheme has ended up tarnishing our industry," he said.

"We have 23,000 farmers out there and most of them didn't even know about the scheme."

Belfast Telegraph