Email key to Spad’s defence ‘really a Moy Park RHI sales pitch’

Andrew Crawford at the RHI Inquiry
Andrew Crawford at the RHI Inquiry

A crucial email which Arlene Foster’s former adviser claims proves he did not try to delay RHI cost controls actually was an attempt to make changes which would have continued vastly lucrative subsides, the RHI Inquiry has been told.

Returning to the public inquiry for a sixth and final day of questioning, Andrew Crawford – the man who was at Arlene Foster’s side for almost all of her ministerial career – faced an intensely forensic examination of his conduct.

Yesterday the inquiry focussed on the DUP man’s deep and extensive contacts with Northern Ireland’s monopoly poultry processor, Moy Park – including the fact that three of his close family members who sell to Moy Park have between them 11 boilers.

Dr Crawford admitted that by mid-2015 “I knew there was nothing to stop people running boilers 24/7 and getting paid for it...I could see how people could do that”.

However, he said he had “no knowledge” of actual abuse happening.

Dr Crawford has denied the allegation of fellow former DUP Spad Tim Cairns that he acted in the background to delay cost controls in the summer of 2015, at a point when the scheme was already known to be beyond its budget.

Central to Dr Crawford’s defence is an email which he sent to Mr Cairns on July 31.

It began: “I think that you will have to make changes from the 1st October as the system at the moment has no upper limit to the amount of support.”

However, the inquiry has revealed how the proposal which Dr Crawford then went on to make in that email as to what should happen on October 1 would have meant that many of the heaviest RHI users would have barely, if at all, been worse off even after the scheme was changed in the way he suggested.

The inquiry’s technical assessor, energy expert Dr Keith MacLean, put it to Dr Crawford that his proposal to allow RHI boiler owners to double the size of boilers eligible for the most lucrative tariff under the proposed cost controls, and then to increase the number of hours which they could claim that top rate from 1,314 hours to 3,000 hours, meant that his proposal would not have reined in the out of control scheme.

He said: “On the basis of fairly simple arithmetic, it seems that what you’re proposing is actually a way of maintaining exactly the same income for the poultry industry that they were having before because what you’re saying is that currently there are 99kw boilers that they’re running for 6,000 hours but under the new regime, because the band is being doubled up to 199kw, they would then run for half the hours.”

He said the proposal would mean that they “would therefore maintain exactly the high income that was driving the behaviour that you have described that allows them to heat houses when they’re empty. Was that your conscious motivation for putting forward that?”

The DUP man said that he was not saying that his proposal was “sound”, based on what he now knows, but that “there was a clear rationale” for it.

He said that he met boiler installer David Robinson in a chance encounter on the farm of his brother who was installing boilers, and was told that an average poultry house requires 16 hours of heat a day and that he had based his calculations on that number.

He said that he believed his proposal would “stop the rush of people coming in before the changes were taking place”.

Dr MacLean said: “Of course you would – if you give them just as much money as before.”

Dr Crawford said: “What you would be doing is stopping people then running the boilers 24/7.”

At that point, inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin intervened. He said: “What this is is a sales pitch for Moy Park.”

Dr Crawford said: “No, it’s not. I don’t believe so.”

Sir Patrick cut him off, saying: “Hold on. Let’s read it: ‘If a Moy Park producer puts in a 199kw boiler, he can expect to run it for 3,000 hours’.”

The retired judge went on: “We’ve already got the warning before that some people are running boilers [in] empty sheds for 6,000 hours.

“But this is for Moy Park – not for that [abuse]. ‘From these calculations you will see that Moy Park producers will be in a rush to refit their houses. If you increase the step from 1,314 to 3,000...’ Why 3,000? Because 3,000 is what Moy Park need. Now, unless you have, Dr Crawford, a really helpful reasoned explanation, that is what you have put in English in your email.”

Dr Crawford replied: “In terms of what [was in the email], it’s not; my knowledge at that time [was that] it took the 3,000 hours to heat a house – not to heat it when it’s empty; it’s to heat it when there’s a crop in the house.”

With obvious exasperation, Sir Patrick interjected: “Exactly. But that’s what Moy Park need or want or told you.”

Dr Crawford said that the previous night he got an email which talked about poultry having the highest heat need and he recalled the conversation with the boiler installer.

Sir Patrick put it to him: “You’re the man who originally recommended setting up a meeting with Moy Park; you’re the man with the relations, all of whom worked for Moy Park; in this email of yours Moy Park are the only people who are identified as requiring 3,000 hours.

“Now, it’s a simple proposition: What you’re saying in this is...we have to stick by 1st October...there is nothing in there that doesn’t refer to the 3,000 hours being attributable to Moy Park’s needs.”

The DUP man said: “I believe if I had spoken to Moy Park, I would probably have came [sic] back with a figure that was below that...it goes back to: What is possible to get this through the [Assembly] committee?”

Sir Patrick said that the ministerial submission passed to him talked about putting in a limit of 1,314 hours, the same as in GB. He said: “What you’re saying here is: There is a special interest here, and that is the poultry interest, and Moy Park need 3,000 hours.”

Dr Crawford said: “What I was doing was putting a proposal on the table – or not even a proposal, a suggestion on the table – to try and allay Timothy Cairns’s concerns so that he could get the submission through.”

Sir Patrick asked: “Or for the benefit of the industry?”

Dr Crawford said: “Well, it’s what was the art of the possible...”

Dr MacLean said the panel was not disagreeing with him that his proposal would have made it much easier to get acceptance of the cost controls “because a big group that would object and would lobby MLAs would be perfectly happy with it” and there would be no spike in applications because “by giving them all the extra money and keeping the level of the money as it was before there would be no reason to rush to get into it”.

Dr Crawford then argued that his proposal would have stopped the extreme abuse of the scheme because those running boilers around the clock would no longer have an incentive to do so.

Sir Patrick said: “All right. Why not go for the limit suggested [from GB]?” The DUP man replied: “Because it goes back to the first two points that Dr Maclean was making...”

With an exasperated laugh, Sir Patrick interjected: “Because you wanted to sell it to the poultry...”

Dr Crawford said: “No, no. I didn’t want to sell it to the poultry industry. I wanted to make sure it could be delivered through the committee.”

In January 2017, internal Moy Park emails show that the company was tipped off by Andrew Crawford that RHI was to be shut – prompting the company to rush to install as many boilers as possible, and giving it a head-start on rivals.

When asked about the meeting where he alerted the company to the looming change, Dr Crawford was vague, saying he did not clearly recall what had happened and suggested it may have been a passing reference to coming changes.

The meeting occured just after he became Spad to the then-finance minister Mervyn Storey, but the meeting was not in the ministerial diary and there are no minutes.

Subsequently, senior Moy Park figures internally discussed how to rush through as many applications as possible how they could look at “any influence we can exert” to “soften” the proposed closure. One suggested they should “go up and see Dr Crawford”.

Inquiry counsel Joseph Aiken asked yesterday: “Did they come and see you?” Dr Crawford said: “I don’t recall”

He said he could not be sure and added: “I would have met Mike Mullen and other people from Moy Park on a frequent; on a fairly regular basis.”

Around that time, Dr Crawford and Moy Park again feature in the story.

The DUP man admitted that he deliberately removed from a crucial document which went to Executive ministers a reference to the fact that the poultry industry had driven the spike in RHI applications.

The submission was part of the Executive’s urgent procedure to close the scheme completely in February 2016 and Dr Crawford’s actions meant that the information going to other ministers was incomplete.

When asked why he took it out, Dr Crawford admitted that the information “is accurate” but said it “wasn’t solely the poultry industry” responsible for the spike.

Sir Patrick Coghlin asked Dr Crawford to “think carefully... about any inference that the panel should draw in relation to your removal of this entry, given your family circumstances and your frequent talks to Mr Mark of Moy Park”.

Dr Crawford disputed that he had “frequent” talks with Mr Mark and said “it is not in relation to any inference in relation to my family”, adding that as a former DETI Spad he had a role in encouraging Moy Park’s growth.

He went on to say that “singling out Moy Park”, before correcting himself to say “the poultry industry, sorry”, was something that was “unfair”.

Sir Patrick said it was “undoubtedly true” that Moy Park had a key role in the spike and asked: “Why remove a true fact?”

Dr Crawford said “it was the inference that was being created at that time”.

Sir Patrick said: “It’s not an inference. That’s what I’m trying to get at with you. The major responsibility for the spike was the poultry industry, and Moy Park in particular. If that was true – and it was – why remove something that was true?”

Dr Crawford said: “My concern was the narrative that it was creating.”

Under intense questioning about his actions and motives, Sir Patrick eventually said: “All I’m trying to do, Dr Crawford, is trying to give you the fullest opportunity to explain something that I think you are unable to explain otherwise.”

Dr Crawford said he had “concern about the wider implications for the sector – the sector that employed a large number of people in Northern Ireland” – but insisted there was “no malice” in what he did.

Dr MacLean highlighted that it contradicted an earlier warning from Dr Crawford that a “tsunami” of applications was going to come because of Moy Park.

>>> Andrew Crawford is a crucial witness and over the course of six days, he faced rigorous questioning – made more rigorous because he repeatedly said “I cannot recall”, “I’m at a loss to know how that conversation went”, “I don’t know”, “I can’t say” and similar phrases, writes Sam McBride

The DUP man was unable to explain his role in many key developments in which he was, or is alleged to have been, involved.

As well as Dr Crawford’s significance to the inquiry’s search for the truth about what happened with RHI, there is also a political significance to what has emerged about how he acted.

Arlene Foster appointed Dr Crawford to a role where he had delegated authority, acting on behalf of the minister, and therefore she is accountable for his conduct.

His fate will impact on her own.