RHI emails farmers' union sent to DUP were 'leaked to media'

Wesley Aston, chief executive of the Ulster Farmers' Union
Wesley Aston, chief executive of the Ulster Farmers' Union

THE chief executive of the Ulster Farmers' Union sent RHI emails to DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford that were later leaked to the media.

Wesley Aston forwarded the emails to Mr Crawford in January 2017 at the height of the RHI scandal, the inquiry into the flawed scheme heard yesterday.

The correspondence highlighted how UFU had lobbied the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) in summer 2015 to delay introducing RHI cost controls.

At a time when the DUP was under huge political pressure, Mr Crawford shared the emails with party colleagues saying that Mr Aston was "content for us to use this info".

The inquiry heard that some weeks later, UFU received a press query from the News Letter asking for a response to questions about some of the emails.

Inquiry counsel Donal Lunny said the emails were at least some of those that Mr Aston had forwarded to Mr Crawford.

Attending the RHI inquiry yesterday, Mr Aston said UFU had "no indication" about what Mr Crawford would do with the emails – and he never thought to ask Mr Crawford who had leaked the emails.

Mr Aston said it never occurred to him that the DUP might use them to shift focus in the RHI controversy from Mr Crawford and the DUP to Deti officials.

Mr Crawford – who was DUP leader Arlene Foster's special adviser (Spad) when she launched RHI – has faced claims of being involved in delaying cost controls for the flawed scheme.

He resigned as a DUP Spad in January 2017 after a senior civil servant alleged he exerted influence over the delays in curbing the RHI scheme's overgenerous tariffs.

Mr Crawford, who previously worked at UFU, had a number of close relatives with boilers registered in the RHI scheme. He denies wrongdoing.

The inquiry heard that after UFU drafted its response to the press query, Mr Aston forwarded it to Mr Crawford.

Mr Aston, who helped draft the responses, said sharing them with Mr Crawford was "purely out of courtesy because he was the subject of the UFU comment".

Asked why he personally dealt with the matter, he said: "I suppose it's just that's the sort of person that I am."

Earlier the inquiry heard from Chris Osborne, a senior UFU policy officer who was responsible for energy matters.

He was asked about instances unrelated to RHI where Mr Crawford gave him sight of confidential papers before their public release.

Mr Osborne accepted it appeared UFU was in a privileged position, but insisted it was "not a very regular occurrence".

He denied that Mr Crawford had tipped-off UFU about the planned closure of RHI to new applicants in early 2016, but said he could not recall how the union found out.

Later, Mr Aston was asked how UFU could justify calling for the original level of RHI subsidies to be reinstated in a recent public consultation paper.

Mr Aston said it believed the consultation was flawed and UFU does not accept the reintroduction of the subsidies would cost £1bn, but he accepted its response "should've been qualified".

Launched in 2012, the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was designed to encourage businesses to switch from burning fossil fuels to more sustainable alternatives.

But the subsidies were worth more than the cost of wood pellets, encouraging firms to 'burn to earn'.

Delays in introducing cost controls brought a spike in applications and pushed the multi-million-pound government scheme hugely over budget.