UFU-owned firm paid £2m by Stormont to give farmers cash
THE commercial arm of the north's largest agricultural lobby group is being paid £2 million to distribute public funds to farmers.
Dungannon-based Countryside Services is administering £15m worth of grants from the £40 million Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS) on behalf of Stormont's agriculture department.
The company is wholly-owned by The Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) and will be responsible for allocating grants of up to £12,000.
The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) said a business case concluded that it was best to outsource the administration of the scheme, funds for which are in addition to the £270 million paid annually to the region's farmers under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.
Countryside Services won the contract to distribute the funds after a tendering competition involving one other unnamed company.
Staff involved in the scheme are required to complete forms declaring any potential conflict of interest, however, it is understood that no such requirement has been placed on UFU staff or its 17-member board.
UFU president Barclay Bell said Countryside Services had adhered to government procurement rules.
"It was successful in the tender process and will now deliver the service to the satisfaction of the agency awarding the contract in accordance with their rules," he said.
However, Green MLA Steven Agnew said he knew of no corresponding situation where a lobby group would be responsible for allocating tens of millions of pounds of public money to its own members.
He described the £2 million being paid to Countryside Services as "a complete waste of public money".
"I would expect the department to have the resources to deliver the scheme in house," he said.
"This would mean more money going directly to farmers and less public money being squandered."
The North Down MLA also raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest.
"The Ulster Farmers Union is an organisation funded by membership fees – there is a question as to whether their commercial arm can be considered impartial in then distributing public money fairly to all farmers regardless of their membership or their relationship with the UFU," he said.
Mr Agnew said Daera's decision to outsource administration of FBIS to the UFU-owned firm against the background of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal had the potential to further undermine public trust in officialdom.
"The RHI fiasco has eroded public trust and confidence in the workings of government," he said.
"It's critical that all departments act in a way that does not waste what remains of that public trust."
The scheme has been promoted by DUP agriculture minister Michelle McIlveen, who said the it was "aimed at improving the competitiveness and sustainability of farm businesses".