Given the sea of lurid rumour and allegations which have swirled around the RHI scheme, perhaps the most convincing thing about Fred Maxwell’s story is the openness of the man who tells it.
The poultry farmer has grown his business to become Northern Ireland’s largest producer of chickens and is proud of his product, some of which is sold on the shelves of a high-end British supermarket.
The Clogher Valley man installed the first of his 10 biomass boilers in July 2013.
Sitting in the News Letter’s Belfast office this week, Mr Maxwell estimated that his total investment in the boilers and their running costs is now about £2.1 million. The RHI list published by Stormont shows that he has received more than £900,000 in RHI payments to date.
The Assembly decision in January to slash RHI payments has torpedoed his business plans. But while he now receives a fraction of the payments he had expected to receive, he still faces a weekly bill for wood chip alone of £4,000.
On top of that are bank loans, maintenance bills and electricity for the system which distributes the heat.
Mr Maxwell said that the current cap meant that one or two crops of chickens per year – a fraction of the six or so crops which he produces annually.
Most of his boilers are now running – because they are needed to heat his chicken sheds – but are bringing in “no money” because he has exceeded the cap on RHI claims which was retrospectively introduced by the Assembly in January.
Mr Maxwell also has three boilers, which he uses to dry wood for the other boilers, which have never been accredited by Ofgem, a decision he said was “scandalous” because he had been encouraged by government to install the drying facility and Greenmount Agricultural College actually used Mr Maxwell’s facility as an example of using locally sourced timber as a fuel in an attempt to encourage others to do likewise.
He said: “Politicians won’t touch it; Ofgem won’t touch it; the department won’t touch it – they won’t even answer emails or return calls.
“It’s scandalous. They had time – if they had gone out when this broke at the start in 2016 – to have all the audits done by now.
“They put it out for tender, the tender was set up in such a way that nobody could have taken on the project – that is the fault of the department. By not auditing everybody, they deem everybody to be crooks so it’s neatly playing into their hands because if they did the audits and 99% pass then they have nothing to work on.”
He said that he was concerned that the audits would not be fair, but would be set up in a way to target legitimate users in an attempt to reduce the department’s liabilities.
Mr Maxwell said that the change had “decimated the rural community”.
“People cannot afford the pellets. They’re just working hand to mouth – everything they make out of their poulty or their farming is going to pay off their fuel bills, pay off their banks and when they hit income tax which is retrospective from last year nobody knows where they are going to get their money from.
“The loans were all done based on the RHI income and the farm income – once one of those goes, the other has to prop it up because banks have to be paid. They won’t take no for an answer. They have to get their money.”
Mr Maxwell’s wife, Amanda, said: “They just want to bury us, and the scheme and smear us all. But that’s not going to happen. I’m not going to let that happen because I want 100% audits and I want it now. That would clean it up. I’m not standing with a crook in wherever, tumble-drying wood in the country; we are a legitimate business, we never abused it from the start.”
She said that if audits were conducted they would identify the fraudulent claims, immediately cutting the bill to taxpayers but protecting those who are not abusing the scheme and added: “We’re not doing this for any crook – they make me sick, just thinking about them. They need to hook them out and make them pay their money back.”
She added of the department: “It suits them well not to audit because they can muddy the whole pool and bury us in the mud but it’s not going to happen.”
Mr Maxwell said that morally the department and wider government had a duty of care to those who it had urged to enter the scheme.
“Of all the people that you think you could trust, you’d think your government would be the first because they’re your government...but to bring out a scheme – which we didn’t ask for – which they brought out and they promoted...and then pull it from under you is scandalous.”
He added: “Dirt sticks and no matter what ever happens, this is with us for the rest of our lives because that’s what people think.”
The Maxwell’s faced unfounded and inaccurate allegations from the blogger Jamie Bryson that they were DUP donors.
Mrs Maxwell said that lurid claims were “absolute nonsense”, adding: “I wouldn’t give them DUP dopes one penny; never have, never will. They couldn’t run a tap...I’ve never been to a DUP meeting in my life – would I waste my night?”
Mr Maxwell added that it would be inappropriate to comment in more detail about the issue due to an ongoing criminal investigation into how information from the department came to be made public.
When asked if it had a duty of care to those who it encouraged to enter the scheme, the department said it was “fully committed to addressing concerns” around the scheme but that “the operation of the scheme with regard to individual participants is the subject of legal proceedings and it would not, therefore, be appropriate for the department to comment further at this time”.
The department said it was “fully committed to a 100% inspection programme” and that an inspection process had started last month. The department said it had met representatives of boiler owners this week about the inspections and “agreed to consider a number of improvements that were suggested”.
It added that the inspectors were “professionally qualified and experienced in inspecting RHI installations in a number of jurisdictions”.
When asked if a single civil servant had been disciplined as a result of the debacle, the department said that it had begun an “independent investigation to ascertain the facts” about the scheme but that due to the public inquiry that had been suspended.