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PM Challenged To End Austerity By Backing Police And Fire Services

Theresa May and the Conservatives will be challenged on Wednesday to show they are committed to ending "austerity" in the police and fire services by backing a Labour amendment to the Queen's Speech.

Jeremy Corbyn said the first Commons vote of the new Parliament will be a test case for MPs' approach to austerity, amid signals from senior Tories that the Government is set to boost public spending.

Labour's amendment calls for an end to cuts to the police and fire services, commends their response to recent terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower disaster, backs the recruitment of more officers and firefighters, and calls on the Government to lift the public sector pay cap.

It is highly unlikely that the Conservatives will back any attempts to amend the Queen's Speech, which sets out the Government's legislative programme for the next two years.

But Labour leader Mr Corbyn said: "You can't have safety and security on the cheap. It is plain to see that seven years of cuts to our emergency services has made us less safe; it's time to make a change.

"Our emergency service workers make us proud at the worst of times for our country, such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the recent terrorist attacks, and deserve the pay rise they have been denied for seven years.

"Conservative cuts have failed. Labour has a different approach, which values those who look after us and will transform Britain for the many not the few."

Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested the Government could ease austerity, stressing that Tories were "not deaf" to the message delivered in the General Election, which saw the party lose its majority after Labour promised large increases in public spending.

The vote comes amid anger over a £1 billion deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up a Tory minority government, branded a "bung" by critics.

Opposition parties and devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales have called on the Government to match the funding boost for Northern Ireland across the UK, with shadow chancellor John McDonnell calling for an end to austerity "throughout the UK", not just in the province.

Tory MP Heidi Allen has also called on the Government to "urgently review" funding for public services across the UK in the wake of the deal with the DUP.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary Janet Davies said: "Hours after nursing staff have staged protests in 30 towns across the UK, MPs will have the first opportunity to show they are listening.

"The protests will have left Theresa May in little doubt over nurses' fears for the safety of their patients and why this cap on pay must go.

"It stands in the way of filling the 40,000 vacant nurse posts in England and must be scrapped this summer. When NHS and care services are short of staff, patients pay a heavy price."

Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison trade union, said: "This vote gives MPs a chance to show they really mean what they've said.

"Public sector pay has fallen behind in the last seven years and this has caused real hardship for workers and their families. It's also made it more difficult to recruit and retain staff in key public services.

"Unison is committed to working with MPs from all parties to smash the public sector pay cap."

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said the Government should back Labour's amendment if it is "serious about addressing all aspects" of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: "This disaster, that has so far cost the lives of at least 79 people, took place in a global, capital city with one of the best resourced fire services in the world.

"In other parts of the UK, fire services would, quite frankly, struggle to commit the same level of life-saving resources and personnel that London was able to."

He added: "In an emergency, every second counts. For fire crews, that means having the right number of fire engines and firefighters at the scene of an emergency as soon as possible in order to do the job professionally.

"Cuts mean that fire engines are increasingly sent out without a full complement of firefighters. This under-staffing prevents firefighters from adopting the best professional practices and procedures and will contribute to deaths that are avoidable.

"The requirements for firefighters and fire engines at tower block incidents are even greater."

A Conservative spokesman said: "We are all indebted to our emergency services and their heroic responses to recent terror attacks, the bravery seen at Grenfell Tower, and the work every day that has seen crime cut by a third.

"We've protected the police budget since 2015 while Labour wanted to cut it by 10% and the number of fire incidents has halved in the last decade.

"We have also given the police and intelligence agencies given the powers they need to respond to increased threats and keep people safe.

"But the truth is you can't fund your emergency services without a growing, healthy economy which only Conservatives in Government will deliver, that's why we have put forward a Queen's Speech that will build a stronger economy so we can improve people's living standards and fund public services.

"Jeremy Corbyn and Labour's prescription of tax rises and limitless borrowing would put all that at risk."

Tory former minister Sir Oliver Letwin acknowledged there was a case for "easing up" on austerity but a "large number" of people may be required to contribute more in tax to pay for an increase in public spending.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it was clear on the doorstep during the election campaign that people were concerned about "spending on schools, spending on health, spending on social care - crucial public services which now seem to be under strain", but dismissed Labour's amendment to the Queen's Speech as "playing politics".

Sir Oliver said that while the better-off would "bear a larger share of the cost", tax rises could not be limited only to the very rich.

"It may well be that, in one way or another, a large number of people will have to pay a little more tax if we are going to maintain the trend towards reduced deficits and yet spend a bit more on the crucial public services that do need more spending," he said.

Shadow Treasury chief secretary Peter Dowd told the programme: "We are trying to send a message that, after seven years of austerity, the public realm and public services have been affected. What we have got to do is inject some resource, and a little bit of hope, a transfusion of hope, into the country after seven years of cut after cut after cut."

Asked whether lives could have been saved at Grenfell Tower if the fire service had had more money, he told Today: "I can't say that, I don't know what the evidence is - that's what the public inquiry will look into."

Pressed on whether police cuts had hampered the ability to tackle terrorism, Mr Dowd said: "I think there could be that link. It's that first line of intelligence - if you cut out that first line of intelligence with police and community support officers, police officers - that will, may, almost inevitably at some point have an effect."

The Liberal Democrats announced that they would be supporting the amendment on austerity but urged Labour MPs to back their amendment to keep Britain in the single market and customs union after Brexit, which could come to a vote on Thursday.

However it is understood that Labour MPs will be asked by Mr Corbyn not to support any amendment calling on the Government to keep the UK in the single market and customs union.

The party would not confirm whether there would be a three-line whip but sources said Labour's manifesto was "clear" - that the party is committed to ending free movement but retaining the "benefits" of the single market and customs union.

The position could prove awkward if Speaker John Bercow selects a rival "soft Brexit" amendment tabled by former shadow cabinet minister Chuka Umunna and backed by 42 Labour MPs, which urges ministers to "set out proposals" to remain in the single market and customs union.

Lib Dem chief whip Alistair Carmichael said: "The Government must listen to the overwhelming tide of public opinion and give our police, firefighters and nurses a pay rise.

"But Labour must be honest and admit we won't be able to pay for strong public services by crashing the economy through an extreme Brexit.

"Labour MPs who want to protect funding for our police, schools and hospitals should back amendments calling for Britain to stay in the single market.

"This is a unique chance to force Theresa May to rethink her extreme approach to Brexit, Labour must not be on the wrong side of history."