The sudden decision to retrospectively slash the terms of the RHI scheme has left many legitimate users facing financial ruin, with some farmers facing the prospect of losing virtually everything they own, the News Letter has been told.
Under pressure to address the failure of the disastrous scheme and amid allegations of some grotesque abuse, DUP MLAs voted through emergency retrospective legislation which turned on its head the sums on which many RHI claimants had been able to persuade banks and other lenders to lend them money.
This week the News Letter has spoken to five RHI claimants, most of whom are farmers, who say they are facing extreme hardship as a result of that decision and who allege that Stormont’s Department for the Economy – where it appears that not a single civil servant has been disciplined for the RHI debacle – is making them pay for the failure of officialdom.
This newspaper has verified the identity of all those who have spoken to us, but most of them asked not to be named either out of fear that they would be targeted by the department or due to being tarnished in many people’s eyes by even being identified with RHI.
One man broke down as he spoke of his debt being like a “ball and chain” which now has him working 100 hours a week; another man told how his father had collapsed under the stress of his financial situation and spent three weeks in hospital.
Amanda Maxwell, whose husband Fred is the largest poultry farmer in Northern Ireland, showed the News Letter financial statements which set out the £2.1 million scale of their investment.
She said that as well as the acute financial pressure, they now face social stigma from people who wrongly assume that every RHI claimant was abusing the scheme.
She said that it was like being in a room full of innocent people where everyone knows that one of them is a rapist, leading to everyone facing suspicion until the innocent men in the room are cleared and added: “That’s how I feel – there are days where I don’t even want to go out...even though we haven’t made one penny of profit from RHI.”
Another farmer outlined eye-watering figures for his exposure to the scheme, setting out how the loans for his boilers were secured against his farm and involved finance houses as well as banks, meaning that he stands to lose almost everything he owns if the situation continues and his creditors move against him.
Another RHI claimant, who is not a farmer and who uses the heat for a business process which was being undertaken long before the RHI scheme opened, said that he is now working 100 hours a week in an attempt to keep up his payments to the bank.
The man said that he was initially turned down by his bank when he asked for a loan but he had “really pushed” the bank and took his borrowings to the limit.
“I wish I’d never gone anywhere near it,” he said, adding that in his view it was possible to abuse the scheme but that he had not done so.
Dismissing the erroneous perception that most of those on the RHI scheme had some link to the DUP, the man said “I’m not in the DUP or any party – I think they’re all useless”.
Breaking down, the man said: “It’s a nightmare. I’ve borrowed £350,000 over 10 years. Next month I’ve an £8,000 payment to make. I’m working night and day to pay that. I’m spending no time with my family. I could strangle the civil servants because they aren’t accountable – I’ve done nothing wrong but I’m the one who’s paying.”
Like most RHI claimants, he has still not been audited but said: “I wish they would come out and audit because this is putting my head away.”
But he expressed alarm at “very technical questions” which those who have been audited have faced, leading him to fear that they could be set up in a way which leads to honest claimants being excluded from the scheme on a technicality.
Another RHI claimant who has three boilers on his farm said that he had borrowed £180,000. The farmer said that his youngest daughter is still being teased at school about her father’s boilers by people who believe that he is making a fortune when in fact his business “is under immense pressure”. The veteran farmer said he spent almost two hours on the phone to a businessman who is “on his knees financially” as a result of the changes.
He said it was “farcical” that RHI had been set up so that boilers were never audited prior to payments commencing and that it was “abominable” that there had still not been a start to a 100% audit of every boiler.
The farmer said that he believed there had been “gross incompetence” by the department which he feared is now wanting to “get as many boilers out of this scheme as possible and deflect that this was about corrupt fraudulent farmers and businesses trying to take public money”.
One man who runs a business which installed RHI boilers said that due to Stormont’s incompetence his industry was now “basically dead in Northern Ireland – we had one enquiry in the last year”.
He contrasted the situation here with that in the rest of the UK where cost controls – stripped out of the regulations by Stormont – manage the available budget.
“To me, it was gross incompetence by the Department for the Economy,” he said.
The man said that he does not have a boiler himself but his father does and “on current levels he cannot repay his loans...he collapsed one day and was in hospital for three weeks. The stress is palpable. You’ve got the financial stress and then the emotional stress because they don’t feel able to speak to anybody.
“I know someone who went to his GP who, in his view, was less than sympathetic. There is an underlying sentiment that other services have taken a hit and RHI is responsible, which I don’t believe is the case.”
Next month a legal case taken by the claimants’ umbrella group, the Renewable Heat Association of Northern Ireland, will be heard in Belfast High Court. The man said that if that challenge fails there will be “mass bankruptcies”.
Pointing to the pre-election leaflet from the DUP which claimed that they had managed to stop the RHI overspend, the man said that in his view the law had been changed as a “political decision to let the DUP put out that election leaflet – the civil service got is grossly wrong the first time round and the DUP got it grossly wrong the second time round.”
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.