Speaking at the ADAS/Syngenta vegetable conference in Peterborough last week, Cowper confirmed that the working party set up by Defra towards the end of last year to find ways of restoring faith in the EU fruit and vegetables scheme was publishing its guidance notes on schedule.
He also confirmed that Defra was holding a meeting for all producer organisations on 3 March to "go through the guidance" before spending three months making sure that "the guide is OK".
One bone of contention that came out of the latest round of EU audits was the way that producer organisations do not always make their own marketing decisions.
Meanwhile, all payments were suspended to the UK's 50 or so producer organisations in October 2009 so that Defra could determine a new policy on shared facilities. This followed a Court of First Instance judgement given to the French authorities, which lost their appeal against a multi-million-euro fine for failing to comply with the shared facilities rules.
It is claimed, for example, that producer organisations have been formed to obtain funds to buy specific items that are then not shared with other producer organisation members.
The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) drew up a policy on shared facilities to comply with the EU rules but, as a result, some British producer organisations were "derecognised" last year.
Cowper said: "It's very difficult for growers and producer organisations because they have not had confidence on which to base their decisions. It's been very frustrating for them day to day - and frustrating for us as administrators.
"But we are not alone in this - we are not the only country that has been caught out. It's not a subsidies scheme - it is for investment in new technologies. Payment to it is under the condition of certain criteria. How do you know you are meeting the criteria? It's not easy but we are making progress and are very grateful to the industry group for working with us."
Despite his reassurance, some growers expressed frustration at Cowper, whose department is in charge of agricultural production including fruit and vegetables.
Bedfordshire-based grower Alistair Findlay questioned the competence of the staff within the RPA. Cowper replied: "I understand the point you are making in terms of the admin - it's not been a happy experience. It's a complicated scheme. What we are trying to do is build a better understanding both in terms of the admin and the producer organisations' viewpoint.
Sherwood Produce managing director Hugh Baker asked what will happen when the EU auditors interpret something differently from the last round of audits.
Cowper responded: "The criteria have not changed. We are trying to make it clear what sort of arrangements will get you recognised and in compliance. We are meeting with other member states now."
He continued: "The European Court of Justice may have to determine what some aspects mean. It's important that people understand that it's not simply an aid scheme - it does have some goals attached to it."
The NFU's new head of food and farming and former chief horticulture adviser Phil Hudson said: "There's a legacy of the way in which the scheme was established back in 1996 that has led to some of the problems we have had with the scheme."
He added that classified guidance was required last year after some producer organisations were found by Government inspectors to be operating outside of the rules and that Defra was "quick off the mark" to develop a working group.
"That guidance will be out shortly. They key thing is that it's about restoring confidence lost because of the almost yearly trauma growers have experienced," he said. "The guidance can begin to put in place the foundations for some renewed hope in the scheme."
RPA UNDER REVIEW
As reported in Grower last month (January), the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is to carry out another comprehensive review - one of several in the past five years - that will see producer organisations undergo further inspections by the agency.
The RPA said in a statement sent to producer organisations last Christmas: "We anticipate the review process will take three to four months to conclude but it will run concurrently with the processing of annual claims."
The release added that some producer organisations may face further delays. "Most producer organisations should receive their annual payment in a broadly similar time frame to previous years. However, payment will not be made until the organisation is considered compliant with the rules of recognition.
"We appreciate that the processes we have put in place will provide further difficulties for UK producers. But our decisions have not been taken lightly and are intended to safeguard the best interests of UK taxpayers and of the industry and to restore confidence in the scheme."