Ask anyone who attended the Downing Street food summit yesterday and the overwhelming (and rather surprising) view, is that, overall, it was quite positive.

It marked a departure from the fractious Boris Johnson years – who can forget his bacon sandwich jibes towards pig farmers? – followed by the chaotic minutes of Liz Truss’ doomed premiership. The general impression was of a grown-up PM in Rishi Sunak, who wanted to listen, learn and act on the food sector’s many crises.

Don’t take my word for it, I wasn’t invited. But of the 70 or so industry bigwigs to have attended the event, a significant proportion of them have given their feedback to The Grocer – and we have columns on the subject from both Ian Wright and NFU president Minette Batters

The overriding message, even from those who have been sceptical about government policy, was one of cautious optimism. Or, dare we say it, full-on positivity. Based on the low expectations of many who spoke to us beforehand, it’s quite the turn-up.

Arla UK MD Ash Amirahmadi was one of many to tell us the meeting was “actually really good”, helping to move food up the priority list and demonstrating government was “taking the sector more seriously”.

Indeed, Batters said she had been “given great heart” by the “constructive and positive discussions which took place in Downing Street”. She also expressed confidence Sunak “gets it” and “recognises the importance of a secure and resilient home-grown food system”.

It probably helped that No 10 announced a wide-ranging package of support for the food sector ahead of the summit. This marked a personal triumph for Batters, who nailed Sunak to holding the summit at a hustings event between the PM and his predecessor during last summer’s Tory party election campaign.

The PM’s raft of commitments includes pledges for egg and fruit & veg supply chain reviews, cash to boost exports and farm innovation, plus a promise to put farmers’ interests “at the heart of trade policy through a new framework for trade negotiations” – in a particularly overt dig at Truss’s negotiation of the much-criticised New Zealand and Australia trade deals.

Arguably one of the biggest highlights of the support package was a commitment to extend the government’s Seasonal Worker scheme for horticulture for a further year in 2024.

Not only was this announcement made more than six months earlier than it had been in previous years – when the growing sector was given scarce time to plan for the following year’s harvest – but Sunak said the 45,000 cap on numbers could also be increased by a further 10,000 if required.

Such an early commitment would “give further certainty to the sector”, Sunak said, enabling growers “to plan ahead for the picking season”.

While it wasn’t the five-year rolling visa scheme the NFU and others were calling for, nor an extension on the terms of the visas from six months to nine months, British Growers Association CEO Jack Ward was pleased the sector would not have to “wait until December” before planning the next year’s crop.

Those comments were very much echoed by farming minister Mark Spencer, who yesterday told The Grocer extending the scheme into 2024 was a “huge step forward”.

“Getting this announcement now means we can demonstrate it gives industry certainty and makes for a smoother system of immigration,” he added. And, in a moment of frankness, he hailed it as “powerful argument” for Defra to put forward to the Home Office.

“Look how well that works when we gave them six months’ notice,” he added. “Let’s give them five years of certainty now and this problem then evaporates a bit.” 

Spencer’s view is, of course, deeply at odds with home secretary Suella Braverman. In comments described as “extraordinarily ill-informed” by one senior food sector source, she suggested at a right wing thinktank’s conference on Monday there was “no reason why we can’t train up enough truck drivers, butchers, fruit pickers or welders”.

There are many – from pay to conditions to the very seasonality and rural nature of picking jobs. Even Defra admitted as much when it cancelled its much-mooted Pick for Britain recruitment scheme in 2021, after tiny numbers of Brits signed up.

This increasingly vocal difference of opinion lays bare the growing chasm within government on the topic of immigration. Spencer was quite happy to add he “would like to see more certainty and time to plan” for growers from a longer-term visa scheme.

Such a comment would have been unheard of just a few months ago, but it seems the PM’s backing of a new scheme has pushed divisions on the issue out into the open.

Given Braverman’s proposals for reducing immigration were largely rejected by a resistant cabinet yesterday, according to The Times, the debate over seasonal workers looks like it will reflect the wider rifts in government on the topic for the remainder of this Sunak administration.

Whoever wins that argument could have a significant impact on how the wider food sector tackles its chronic labour shortages once and for all.