1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [44867/17]
Vol. 961 No. 1
1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [44867/17]
2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that has assumed the responsibilities of the former Cabinet committee on justice reform. [43824/17]
3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, will next meet. [44043/17]
4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services. [46348/17]
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met. [46483/17]
6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee at which issues relating to justice are discussed; and the number of times it has met since June 2017. [47086/17]
116. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee in which justice issues are discussed; and when the last meeting took place. [46213/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, and 116 together.
Cabinet committee B covers the areas of social policy and public service reform, including education, children, equality, social inclusion, Irish and arts and culture and continued improvements in and reform of public services. Issues relevant to reform of the justice system are also included in its remit. Cabinet committee B met on Monday, 11 September and is scheduled to meet again next week.
Cabinet committees also aim to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of commitments in A Programme for a Partnership Government. The commitments seek to provide opportunities for everyone living in Ireland, of all ages and backgrounds, to participate fully and benefit from a recovering economy. For example, I expect committee B to focus on the roll-out of improved child care services, implementation of the DEIS action plan and improving services for people with disabilities.
The Government is also determined to ensure substantial reform of the policing and justice systems. The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland is due to report next year but, in the meantime, the Policing Authority is overseeing implementation of the existing Garda modernisation and renewal plan. The Government expects to see further progress in the year ahead in areas such as civilianisation, a new divisional model of policing, improved ICT systems and victim support services.
I will concentrate on reform of the justice system, with particular reference to white collar crime. As part of the Fine Gael leadership campaign, the Taoiseach promised action on this matter. There was a fanfare of publicity last week when some measures were announced. For example, we were told that the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, ODCE, was to be made an independent agency, but it already is under the Company Law Enforcement Act 2001. We were told that the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Bill 2017 was important, but it has gathered dust as part of the legislative programme for the past five years. I do not have the current figures, but in 2016 there were 35 staff in the ODCE assisted by five gardaí. This gives an insight into the State's attitude to white collar crime and corporate enforcement. What the Government should be doing - I would like to believe the rejigged committee will do so - is considering international best practice in tackling white collar crime, including appropriate, independent and properly resourced agencies and robust legislation. Will the Taoiseach update the House on these matters?
I wish to ask about the sub-committee on public services and whether it is considering the Government's responsibility for the current rail dispute. Subsidies for transport services, specifically rail services, have decreased dramatically since 2008, from €181 million to €117 million. If the Government was simply to restore the level of subvention to Irish Rail in 2008, Irish Rail would have more than enough money to fund the pay claims of rail workers who have not received a pay increase for ten years. If the Government raised its subvention to average EU levels, an extra €120 million would be put straight into Irish Rail's transport services, which would be more than enough to finance the modest pay claim of rail workers who do not want to be out on strike but who believe they have no other choice. Have the Taoiseach and the sub-committee accepted that it is the Government's failure to subvent public transport that is the cause of the dispute? There is a rigged game. It means that, even if Irish Rail does well and makes a profit of more than €3.5 million, that profit is taken away from it; therefore, it cannot possibly finance a pay increase. Unless we provide the subvention that we used to give or is common across Europe, this type of dispute will continue.
During the break between Dáil sittings we saw the first outing of the new communications unit in national advertising - the colour ads and accompanying PR campaign that were rolled out highlighting the changes in funding by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection for dental cleaning and polishing services. It seems that the new interest in paid advertising that the Taoiseach brought to the Department remains in place.
Any expansion in a service is welcome, but what is not welcome is an advertising campaign being used to cover up a service which is in crisis.
I draw the attention of the Taoiseach to the appalling waiting lists for orthodontic treatment. People are waiting longer than 12 months - in some cases up to 24 months - for treatment. That bad news is never acknowledged and there are no advertisements about how bad the situation is. Thousands of children are waiting longer than 12 months for orthodontic treatment in every part of the country. In the grade 4 category, over 2,500 people have been waiting for over 13 months and a further 2,500 have been waiting for over 25 months, a total of 5,000. Close to 4,000 people are on waiting lists in the grade 5 category.
That gets to the core of the serious issues affecting children and teenagers waiting for orthodontic treatment. It is simply not good enough. People are annoyed when they see glossy full-colour advertisements from the Taoiseach's Department while at the same time the Government is failing to have any impact on issues affecting children in a significant way.
I raised the issue of hospices on previous occasions. People working in them are being treated very badly by the Government in terms of public pay policy. The Taoiseach said on the record of the House that hospices and section 29 companies were not subject to FEMPI. They were and I, and I understand Deputy Burton, met some of those affected recently. A documentary trail clearly illustrates that they were subject to FEMPI and were directed to take pay cuts by the HSE. They are now being denied pay restoration. Therefore, hospices have to pay their staff restored rates of pay. In many instances, they are €300,000 in the red as a result, depending on the size of the hospice.
It is an appalling and cynical way for a Government to treat our hospices. I have raised this issue on Leaders' Questions and the Order of Business. Has the Cabinet sub-committee agreed that what was done is wrong? Can he confirm that the wrong in respect of hospices and section 29 companies will be rectified?
I want to support Deputy Martin. I am conscious that the Taoiseach acknowledged last week that he is aware of the impossible situation in which hospices are being put. I take it he will respond in due course.
Has the Taoiseach or Government had a discussion on harassment and bullying in the workplace, specifically public employment and publicly funded institutions? We have had a slew of stories recently which have involved harrowing and grotesque allegations of bullying in the Gate Theatre, which has been a significant recipient of public funds over the years. In theatrical terms, it has a fantastic record. The description of what has been happening to women in partially publicly funded employment is hardly believable. I know the Taoiseach does not have a direct role in this, but as a public funder I ask him or his Government to take a leadership role.
This is an incredibly important issue, most obviously to women in the workplace. It is also important to young people in the workplace, whether men or women, who may be at the start of their careers. Powerful dominant figures may use their power and dominance to make life very difficult for other people and seek to extract behaviour and favours from them which they would not otherwise dream of attempting to do.
Having become Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar is obliged to offer leadership. This is a policy issue. He cannot hide behind law. He has to make it clear what the standard of his Government will be in his approach to this. Do we require stronger legislation?
I refer to the justice function of the Cabinet sub-committee. Was there any discussion on the staffing levels of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, ODCE, or was it brought to the attention of the Taoiseach, in particular the fact that the most senior Garda position, that of detective inspector, had been vacant since September of last year? The issue was raised in the House and the national media in May this year, with promises that the position would be filled speedily, but this has not happened to date. Will the Taoiseach provide assurance that this very important role will be filled without further delay?
I refer to the Government's pension policy. Has the committee discussed pensions policy? The Taoiseach began work on an action plan for pensions when he was Minister for Social Protection. There was talk of a universal auto-enrolment pension scheme. Where stands that now?
There was quite a range of questions on almost every topic, very few of which were dealt with by the Cabinet sub-committee. I am not in a position to answer them all in four minutes. I will try to answer what I can, starting with white collar crime.
On 2 November, the Government launched a suite of 28 measures aimed at enhancing corporate governance, increasing transparency and strengthening Ireland's response to white collar crime. I agree with the suggestion of Deputy Adams that we should look at best international practice and we can certainly do that. It is a priority for me and something about which I feel very strongly. I will personally spearhead the implementation of this initiative and the 28 actions. I do not necessarily think the actions should stop there. We can do what was announced last week, as well as doing more. The public demands that there be greater accountability in justice when it comes to white collar crime, in particular.
The package of measures includes a review of the effectiveness of State bodies with a role in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of those engaged in fraud and corruption. The establishment of the ODCE as an independent company law compliance and enforcement agency, provisionally named the bureau of corporate compliance and enforcement, will provide greater autonomy and ensure it is better equipped to investigate the increasingly complex breaches of company law. The sourcing of expertise and specialist staff will be enhanced under the agency model. The Department proposes that a structure similar to a commission, as is the case with the Revenue Commissioners and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, would be the most appropriate for this agency.
There will also be a joint agency task force to tackle white collar crime. The pilot will address payment fraud, including invoice redirection fraud and credit card fraud, a criminal enterprise which is increasingly exploited by sophisticated criminal enterprises and which can have a devastating effect on individuals and businesses, resulting in the closure of companies and job losses.
The Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Bill and Criminal Procedure Bill will, among other things, streamline criminal procedures to enhance the efficiency of criminal trials. The Protected Disclosures Act will be evaluated to ensure the legislation has been effective in line with its objectives and how it might be improved if necessary. Each of these measures includes milestones for delivery which are time bound and have been assigned to a lead Department for implementation.
On the vacancy to which Deputy Howlin referred in respect of a Garda detective inspector in the ODCE, I understand the duties and role have been undertaken by another detective inspector in addition to other duties. An ambitious programme of recruitment and promotion is now under way across An Garda Síochána. This is taking some time, but arising from the process a new appointment will be made to the post as soon as possible. In the interim, the Garda authorities have confirmed that they intend to assign the role on a full-time basis, effective immediately. It is important to note that there has been a full complement of gardaí at sergeant rank throughout this period.
The allocation of resources is, of course, a matter for the Garda, subject to the oversight of the police commission. The Government has made it abundantly clear that it is entirely committed to tackling white collar crime. This was evidenced by the significant package of measures we launched last week. The House will shortly have an opportunity to debate the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Bill, which includes legislative provision for the recommendations arising from the Mahon tribunal and will substantially advance meeting Ireland's obligations under a number of international anti-corruption instruments.
This major modernisation of corruption offences law will repeal and replace seven previous prevention of corruption Acts from 1889 to 2010. It is a major update and modernisation of our law in this area. I am advised that, at its peak, subvention to Irish Rail was €308 million in 2008. It was cut back substantially but it has been increased by 35% in the past three years. It now stands at 93% of the 2008 figure.
That is for all transport and not just Irish Rail.
That may be the case but as the Deputy knows, Irish Rail receives over half of all the subvention that goes to public transport but carries only 20% of passengers. If we were to be fair and put passengers first, we would subsidise the buses much more as they carry many more passengers than rail services.
They should all be subsidised.
The Deputy has suggested rail subsidies should be raised to the European average, arguing that if we did so, it would meet the pay demands of the unions. I would have thought we should put the passenger and consumer first, and if we raised our subsidies to the European average, we should be looking for a European rail service. That is the priority I would attach to this and it demonstrates the contrast in our approach. My priority will always be safety and services, people and passengers, and it is what we should put first. On pay, we could do European benchmarking. If it makes sense to have a European level of subsidy for railways, surely the same should apply to pay and we could pay staff whatever is the European average. If the logic applies on the level of subsidy, it should also apply to the level of pay.
Deputy Martin asked about the work being done by the strategic communications unit, SCU. I am glad to confirm it is doing exactly what I said it would. It is informing people of their entitlements, including new entitlements. This includes the campaign around the restoration of treatment benefits. Free scaling and polishing is available for people who pay pay-related social insurance, PRSI, including the self-employed for the first time. It is one of the new benefits that the Government is introducing for the self-employed and restoring for others. It is a good step forward and it is about making work pay.
What about orthodontics?
It is about making work pay and the contributory principle. It is also about ensuring people get value for their PRSI. It is only the first step in a new system of social insurance that will be developed over a number of years.
I acknowledge that we have had very serious delays and waiting times for orthodontic work. I do not agree that it does not get acknowledged. If one turns on the news on any given day, it is 80% negative and 20% positive. It ought to be 50:50 but it is not.
It is never acknowledged by the Government's publicity machine.
This can be seen through two simple examples. When unemployment rates increased, it was the main item on the news but now they are decreasing, it is item No. 20 if it is even on the news at all. When the amount of mortgage arrears was increasing, it was the main item on the news but now it is decreasing and it is barely news at all.
Is the Taoiseach criticising the media?
The SCU does not go any way towards redressing-----
We will move on as we are not making progress.
They are not giving the Taoiseach good enough coverage.
We will move to Questions Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive.
John Concannon will be getting a call.
I am beginning to think the Taoiseach will be going to North Korea as well for the publicity.
The point I raised is very important to women. I understand that what the Taoiseach spoke of is important but it ignores what has happened with the harassment and bullying of women.
I have no control over that.
It ill behoves the Taoiseach not to respond to that.
We have taken four minutes in excess of what is allowed for the questions.
That is a very unfair remark. I would be happy to continue to answer all the questions asked by Deputies-----
I thank the Taoiseach. I advise the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to be reasonable.
-----but I am in the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's hands as to whether that complies with Standing Orders.
We have exceeded the time. There are two other groups of questions.
I would be very happy to forget about all the other questions and just answer these.
I am in the hands of Members. If they want to continue with this group for another 25 minutes, they can do so.
We need another minute.
I would like the Taoiseach to reply.
It would take more than a minute as there are number of other questions to answer.
That is fine.
There are 25 minutes left.
I am happy to reply but this system does not work.
Are we moving to the next questions?
We can have another minute on these.
We will not be taking the third group.
The matter of the hospices is being examined and I have received Deputy Burton's correspondence on it in recent days. I understand the Labour Court will not deal with it because there is no dispute between the employer and the employees. I have asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Health to examine the matter and I am confident we will be able to resolve it by the end of the year, or certainly in line with the 2018 service plan.
Bullying in the workplace has not been discussed at Cabinet committee level, although I agree it is a very important matter. It is perhaps one we should discuss. There can be no tolerance of assault, sexual harassment or bullying of any sort in any workplace. I want that message to go out very clearly. The Gate Theatre is a private institution and not a public body. It has its own board and trustees, and it is incumbent on them to put in place an independent investigation to ensure the allegations made are thoroughly investigated. Separately to this, I have discussed the matter bilaterally with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and she will meet members of the Arts Council today to discuss the matter and see if we need to take some actions across the arts sector. I do not believe for a second matters like bullying or sexual harassment are unique to any one sector. They are probably prevalent in society and I am full of admiration for the people who have come forward in this and other countries to tell their stories. If they continue to do so, it may help to change the climate and make people who may consider treating fellow workers or people subordinate to them in the workplace in such a beastly manner. I hope it would cause them to think twice in future.
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when his Department received the recent Revenue Commissioners report on Brexit; the actions being taken as a result; and his views on the observations made in the report regarding implications for a border on the island of Ireland. [43827/17]
8. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if the recent Brexit and the consequences for Irish Customs report by the Revenue Commissioners was received by his Department; when it was received; and if he will report on its contents. [44868/17]
9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if his Department received the recent Revenue Commissioners report on Brexit; if so, when; the actions being taken as a result; and his views on the report regarding implications for a border. [46484/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, together.
The report referred to is a draft internal working paper and preliminary analysis prepared by the Revenue Commissioners in September 2016 of potential administrative implications on customs processes following the UK vote in June 2016 to leave the European Union. As I stated in the House on 11 October, I read the Revenue Commissioners desktop analysis report on the customs implications of a hard Brexit in the previous few days. The primary purpose of the working document was to identify matters arising from the view of both customs and trade. The document concluded many of these matters would require more detailed study in their own right and the final position would not become clear in advance of the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
Matters have moved on significantly since September 2016, and in particular since Article 50 was triggered in March 2017. The draft document prepared by the Revenue Commissioners was not finalised and was overtaken by consequent major developments and policy statements.
It is wonderful language with terms like "draft" report, indicating it was not completed. We have read such replies before. To cut to the chase, there has been a consistent pattern of Government in refusing to make plans available or publish reports. It is withholding basic information. The Taoiseach reversed position when he said the Government was preparing for different Brexit scenarios. When I raised this first, he rounded on me, saying he would not tolerate any North-South thing, which is fair enough and nobody agrees with it. Nonetheless, following a couple of days in Derry, the Taoiseach said the Government was examining all sorts of scenarios. He might indicate what specific scenarios are being planned for or considered, and what did he mean by the statement in Derry?
Last week, the British Government caved in to much pressure by agreeing to publish detailed sectoral studies of the impact of different Brexit scenarios for Britain, as it had previously tried to withhold them, claiming negotiations would be undermined if people knew the underlying facts behind different sectoral analyses. It has been stated that sectoral impact studies have been prepared under the auspices of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Will the Taoiseach agree to follow the British example and publish these impact studies? InterTradeIreland this week stated three quarters of companies had not yet put in place Brexit contingency plans. This is a more urgent issue than one might think.
One of the reasons I called for the Revenue study to be published was to inform public debate and let people know the agenda. There should be no secret around the potential difficulties that Brexit will create in a post-Brexit scenario. There is much language amounting to the political elite covering tracks and hoping things work out better than they might. We all know we are subject to the division within the British cabinet, along with the civil war within the Tory Party and the inability of a coherent position to emanate from Britain.
British business people and traders and Irish SMEs and traders need to understand the full implications of Brexit. People are assuming that it will be sorted out. Some people in this country even believe there will be a second poll. It is as if the political systems in Britain and Ireland want to protect people from the harsh realities that Brexit may result in. No one likes to be the bringer of bad news, but there is a need to be up front with people and to explain what Brexit will mean in various scenarios for the agrifood industry, the haulage industry, for the ports, maritime and fishing, etc. The more people understand the nuts and bolts of this and the gravity of it in their individual sectors, the better the response will be politically, not just here, but more crucially in the United Kingdom, where opinion is divided across all parties, within parties and in the general public. That whole debate has been abandoned in the United Kingdom.
Withholding reports such as the Revenue report, in my view, is a mistake, and there is no need to do it. Saying it was only a draft report and that events have overtaken it is merely putting a gloss on it after the Government was caught out. We should not have to wait for the media to produce that report for us. It should have been put before the Dáil in the interests of transparency. I am asking the Taoiseach to publish any other available sectoral study that has been undertaken by various Government agencies and bodies.
At the risk of annoying the Fianna Fáil leader, I agree with him on this issue. These reports should be brought before the Dáil and the Taoiseach should agree to publish all internal reports relating to Brexit and any option paper it has agreed. The leaked report of the Revenue Commissioners makes for disturbing reading, although it is quite practical. It makes the case that a frontier or border would be disastrous in terms of economic and physical effects, which we all now understand.
The British Government says it wants no physical barriers on the Border. This is complete and absolute nonsense, unless it is prepared to maintain the North within the European Union. Of course, it will not do that if the Irish Government is not making that demand as well. The Taoiseach spoke with the British Prime Minister last week. Did he raise any of these issues? Did he get any clarity from the British Government on how it proposes to achieve a border with no barriers? Is the Taoiseach yet to ask the British Prime Minister to accept special status for the North within the European Union? One of the outcomes, unless we push very firmly on that position, is that the European Union will insist that this State puts up border posts. I am aware that Fianna Fáil has solved this problem with its suggestion of M50-type tolls as border posts.
The point of all of this is that we should not have to rely on leaked documents and what is in the media on one day or the other, so could the Taoiseach agree to publish all internal reports and make sure that the Oireachtas and the public have any available paper relating to Brexit? Today, according to the Financial Times, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, said that his preference is for a four or five-year transition period for Britain to exit the EU. Is that the Government position? Has that been discussed with our partners in the European Union? What is their opinion on extending the transition period?
Everybody on this side of the House is anxious to co-operate with the Government and provide as much assistance as possible to achieve the best possible outcome for the island of Ireland. This is not a party political football.
The chairman of the Revenue Commissioners raised a number of points which are presumably being worked on. I want to call them to the Taoiseach's attention. One such point is the study on the implications and the assessment of the options under the new Union customs code. Another is the key issue of the Article 50 task force conducted through the communications channels that his own Department runs, perhaps via the strategic communications unit. A further point concerns the development of customs IT infrastructure to ensure that it is going to be possible to deal with transactions in the future. The final point is the deployment of additional staff to prepare for Brexit and the scaling up of resources as necessary. It is common knowledge that Revenue is overwhelmed at the moment in terms of the task it has to do. It is probably some 300 to 500 staff short, particularly in the context of Brexit.
I would appreciate if the Taoiseach could update us on the points laid out by the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners. In particular, on the key issue of the Article 50 task force, can the Taoiseach share with us who is on the task force, what it is doing and if there is an interim report? It is the responsibility of both the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We need communication on that issue. Revenue has a very clear idea on how to guard the national interest and the island interest, but the Taoiseach needs to share that with us.
I want to give Deputy Eamon Ryan an opportunity to speak because we will not be taking the next group until tomorrow.
I was going to ask a question on the European Council but there have been enough variations on that question already so I will not avail of the opportunity. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
The next group of questions will be taken tomorrow.
I absolutely agree with Deputy Martin that there is no need for secrecy around impact analyses. I have no difficulty with them being published. There may be good reasons they should not be published but I do not believe those reasons involve secrecy. I accept the basic point that the Deputy makes, that it helps to inform the debate, not just here but also in the United Kingdom. There has to be a degree of secrecy around the negotiations, and any reasonable person here will understand that. Whether we are talking about the negotiations currently under way in Northern Ireland or those under way in Brussels, we cannot play them out here and show our hand to the people we are negotiating with. People will understand why that is unwise. The opportunity for confidential briefings on Brexit for party leaders is available from my Department, and I trust party leaders to treat those briefings in full confidence.
Many impact analyses have been published. I see one in the newspapers every other week, often from a Government body or a body associated with the Government, or indeed a non-governmental body. There is no shortage of impact analyses outlining the potential horrors of a Brexit that goes wrong. I am not sure we need any more of them, but I have no difficulty with them being published.
It is 18 months since the referendum on Brexit in the UK and it is worth reflecting on some of the things that have been done and achieved to date. It is very significant that the Government has managed to secure Irish issues as being among the top three issues in phase 1 of the talks, that those issues are part of the sufficient progress test and that there is an understanding that Ireland is unique when it comes to Brexit. We have secured a commitment from the UK and the EU that we will attempt to avoid a hard border and that there will be no physical infrastructure. We have a commitment from the UK and the European Union to protect the common travel area and the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. We have widespread support for a transition phase now. I was asked how long that might be. Let us not forget that this was not even a part of the early discussions. Ours was the Government that first proposed that there might be and should be a transition phase; it was contained in the speech of the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, at the Mansion House. We have also managed to dispel any suggestion that we too might leave the European Union.
In the first few weeks after the Brexit referendum we were seriously asked by many people if Ireland would leave too. We managed to dispel any notion that we would ever consider it.
A huge achievement.
We have secured the Kenny text, that is, the text in the minutes of the guidelines setting out clearly that, should there ever be a united Ireland, the Six Counties can come into the European Union seamlessly. We have also reaffirmed the right of everybody born in Northern Ireland to Irish and European citizenship. Crucially, we have ensured we are not isolated. The worst position the country could be in is to be isolated and, somehow, piggy in the middle between the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union. That would leave us very exposed at a certain point. We have ensured we have never been isolated and have been very much one of the 27. We are also forging new alliances and planning for the European Union without the United Kingdom. At the last European summit I attended the breakfast meeting of the Nordic and Baltic states, states with which we have a great deal in common. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, also attended. He will visit Dublin quite soon. This week the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, attended the Nordic-Baltic dinner in Brussels. We are already forming new alliances and building new friendships.
In terms of the general preparations for Brexit, we have balanced the books, which is very important. We must pay down the debt, balance the books and get into surplus to prepare for any downturn, if there is to be one, as a consequence of Brexit. I do not believe there will be, but we must prepare for it. We paid off the IMF loans early and are setting out an ambitious capital plan in the next four and ten years to prepare for Brexit. Part of it might involve, for example, improving road infrastructure and potentially ports, depending on what happens. Today the Cabinet approved the low-cost loans scheme for the agrifood industry and SMEs, companies employing fewer than 500 people. The Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation will tell Members more about it next week. There is a €5,000 grant for businesses to help them to prepare for Brexit.
The number of the Attorney General's staff in Brussels has increased from one to five and will continue to increase. That is important because, after Brexit, Ireland will be the only common law country in the European Union. We will have to do for ourselves much of the work that was done for us by the United Kingdom. We have also announced that we are opening five new embassies and missions next year. When I spoke in the House about the global 2020 plan, my plan to double our footprint globally, I was told by Members opposite that it was just more spin. It is not. The five specific embassies and missions that will open next year will be in New Zealand, Mumbai, Vancouver, Bogota and Santiago de Chile. We have also increased staff and resources for Tourism Ireland, Bord Bia, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland.
That is just a brief synopsis of the enormous work the Government has done and the enormous progress already made in our preparations for Brexit.