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RHI scandal: Northern Ireland farmers could become scapegoats if names are made public, claim UFU

By Michael McHugh

Farmers who signed up to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) have been advised not to allow their names to be made public.

The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) said its members risked becoming scapegoats for failings in the green energy scheme and added only those whose heating systems have been audited should consent to their details being disclosed.

Reportedly around half of RHI recipients are agriculturalists - many using wood boilers to heat chicken houses.

UFU chief executive Wesley Aston said: "It is up to individuals to decide whether they give permission to be named - but we fear this is not about transparency but efforts to shift the focus from those who failed to safeguard the taxpayer."

He advised members who joined the scheme not to give permission for their names to be disclosed unless audits have been carried out of their installations, and claimed authorities had been slow to do checks.

"It has no excuses for its failure to act in a timely way. Without the audit farmers risk being criticised, without being able to show they acted within the terms of the scheme." Mr Aston said the vast majority of applicants behaved legitimately, installing boilers to reduce energy costs, and were encouraged to do so by the Stormont department responsible.

"We are fully behind a proper review of this scheme.

"How and why what should have been a good scheme went wrong must be fully and properly investigated - but those who used the scheme legitimately must not be tried and convicted in the court of public opinion."

Biomass boiler owners have also formed a group to deal directly with government officials over the scheme.

It's understood they are opposed to businesses that applied in good faith to the scheme being named.

They are writing to the Department of the Economy seeking a meeting ahead of any announcement of changes to the scheme.

Earlier, the UFU said it had warned Stormont of the risks of a spike in applications to the overspending scheme months before it happened.

In response, the Department for the Economy said the outcome of the meeting with the UFU was an agreed paper setting out the heat demands of a typical poultry house. Steps to introduce tiered payments in autumn 2015 were met by a flurry of applicants trying to get on to the old system before the date set for the changes.

Almost 1,000 applied in three months - around the same number as in the previous three years.

The deluge of new applications was a key factor in the massive overspend.

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