Ulster Unionist agriculture spokesperson Robin Swann MLA has claimed that farmers across Northern Ireland were deliberately misled after he discovered only £8m of the £29m available for this year’s RHI tariffs is likely to be spent.
The remaining £21m that had been set aside by the UK Government for local RHI claimants will be lost and sent back to the Treasury, something that will infuriate local farmers who saw their tariffs slashed earlier this year, he claimed.
Robin Swann said: “The RHI debacle is the biggest financial scandal in Northern Ireland’s history. Taxpayers and applicants were badly let down, with at one stage public finances looking at a shattering shortfall of well in excess of £400million.
“The reality is many farmers only entered the scheme after they were actively and repeatedly encouraged to do so by Northern Ireland Executive Departments. Arlene Foster’s central role in the design and implementation of the scheme, as well as her catastrophic decision to write to banks urging them to support the scheme on the basis of supposed guarantees, was a major mistake as those assurances of payments being legally rock-solid for 20 years were quickly abandoned.
“Then, earlier this year, genuine applicants were again hit with further major reductions in the tariffs. Whilst the first changes involved capping, the second set of changes that came into effect this April were totally punitive and left local farms at a major competitive disadvantage when compared to tariff rates in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
“Whilst I and party colleagues have met with dozens of the affected farm businesses right across the country, the Department for Economy here always maintained that the latest cuts were necessary.
“By using Freedom of Information Legislation however I sought a range of specific answers as to how much central funding was available from the UK Government each year and how much has been spent. It was no surprise to see that in 2016/17 the scheme cost more than twice the level of the budget being provided by Treasury, however what shocked me was the forecasted expenditure for this 2019/20 financial year.
“The Department is now expecting the spend on Domestic and Non Domestic RHI to be in the region of only £8m. This is of course subject to some slight changes depending on a number of factors including heat usage by scheme participants as the year progresses. But on the whole, given £28.9m was available, this means that over 70% of the available budget looks set to be returned to Treasury.
“This revelation will shock and anger the current recipients on the scheme who saw their payments decimated through not much more than a stroke of a pen earlier this year. It also confirms that senior civil servants here in the Department for Economy simply haven’t learned from the first time they botched the RHI scheme.
“Whilst I am aware that the Department are committed to a further independent review of the RHI tariffs, this revelation will leave many people even doubting the need for such a review. There can only now be one outcome – the changes made in April this year must be reversed. “