Audlem Online talks to local MP Stephen O'Brien

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Our local MP Stephen O'Brien, was interviewed by Audlem Online during his visit to Audlem on Friday. Many of the questions were emailed in to us. This is what he had to say.

Until 1997, Audlem was in the Crewe & Nantwich constituency. Whatever their political colours, people thought Gwyneth Dunwoody was an excellent constituency MP. What do you think makes a first class constituency MP?

Stephen O'Brien: "Gwyneth is an excellent constituency MP and we work together on local issues. It's easier to work with people who are prepared to be counted. Gwyneth and I are, I like to think, both like that. We know where we stand.

As for what makes a good constituency MP, you have to love the job and really want to get on with it each morning when you wake up. You have to want to deal with individuals' issues and relish the role. Yes, you take on other wider responsibilities but these are add-ons to your constituency role. You have to be motivated by your local responsibilities."

What do you think are the really big issues for a rural constituency like Eddisbury?

SO'B: "I believe that rural areas are made up of people who are the best examples of communities that are alive and well — villages, small market towns and agricultural businesses. They do, however, remain under severe pressure. You have to live and breathe them and care about them as a constituency MP."

A local questionnaire (for the Audlem Parish Plan) showed that Heavy Goods Vehicles passing through the village was a massive issue. What can be done, and what can you do as our MP, to help local people on this issue. Or do we have to wait until there is a fatal accident?

SO'B: "The biggest problem for Audlem is the Wrexham Industrial Estate and other businesses to the west. Combine that with the configuration of the M6 and to many drivers, including those from Eastern Europe, the A525, a green primary route on the maps, appears an obvious short-cut.

The green route is key to the issue and the current problem will be exacerbated by the increase in fuel prices. Unless the trucks are forbidden, they will come. The first objective has to be to de-prime the route and secondly, there needs to be advisory signage at both ends of the route warning the truck drivers away."

Local people, having little public transport, are alarmed by the rapid rise in fuel prices. Do you think fuel tax should be reduced or are you in favour of high fuel taxes for environmental or perhaps fiscal reasons?

SO'B: "This is a very complex issue with much of the increase fuelled by speculation in the international spot market for oil. The rise will force everyone to look at environmentally better solutions. Necessity being the mother of invention, there will be a drive to alternatives. Unfortunately rural subsidies would only be a short-term solution and difficult to implement. For many, there has to be a trade off. One gets a better quality of life in an area like this but the downside is the additional cost of travel."

Audlem has no mains gas and so is feeling the effects of high oil prices for domestic use. Would you press British Gas to provide gas to a community of 2,000 people?

SO'B: "I'd be happy to support the village if this is what people want but the decision will be with the gas company and it has to viable. There may be longer term alternatives such as biomass for farmers but one alternative in the area I will always oppose is wind turbines."

Leighton Hospital is making 250 people redundant, the North Staffs around 1,000. What do you think is going wrong given the money being pumped into the NHS?

SO'B: "As Shadow Minister for Health, I have been very much involved in exposing the problems in the NHS. There has been, it has to said, appalling and gross mismanagement by Patricia Hewitt. The reforms have distorted clinical priorities and have led to expenditure on badly managed areas which have imposed costs on the Primary Care Trusts, such as the new Agenda for Change. The Department of Health has been hopeless in calculating the costs of these changes. The pilots didn't work but this was ignored. There will, however, always be pressure on the NHS, because there has to be a level of resource to which it has to be limited."

Cheshire County Council has just increased its charges for Homecare (eg for the elderly) by 77% to over £16 an hour. What are your thoughts on this?

SO'B: "I have been to see the Cheshire County Council official responsible and the scale of increases has been scaled back. The worst increases will only apply to a proportion of people and many will be exempt. The increases are, however, very significant and neither right or appropriate.

They have happened because of a significant shortfall in Government funding to the County Council. The Council increased its Council tax by 4.9% this year, the maximum it could, but it only had £3 million of discretionary funding. I am afraid the cause of these increases is the Treasury discriminating against the Shire counties. I will continue to battle on all fronts on this issue."

What are your views on the possible local government changes with respect to Crewe & Nantwich? It is suggested that Parish Councils may get greater powers. Which services do you think could be devolved to a parish such as Audlem?

SO'B: "I oppose regionalisation and I am not in favour of combining councils into unitary authorities. The principle always has to be to have local government at the most local level, specifically Parish Councils. They have always operated best by being non-party political. This is under threat because if the Government gives more power to them, there will be party political pressure — the new Code of Conduct shows clearly it is heading in that direction. I am concerned because I like the fact that people do things like serving on a Parish Council for the right reasons. Yet Parish Council's do need more power such as in dealing with planning applications."

Do you agree with the introduction of ID cards?

SO'B: "No. They won't stop a bad person and they will be costly and meddlesome for the law abiding."

Charles Clarke has been sacked today. Do you think John Prescott or Patricia Hewitt should resign?

SO'B: "What is John Prescott for? He doesn't have a department any more. As for Patricia Hewitt, there is no confidence that the NHS can possibly improve in her hands. It pains me to say it, but the NHS is no longer safe in Labour's hands."

Would you prefer Blair or Brown to be leading Labour until the next General Election?

SO'B: "Moving the deck chairs doesn't stop a ship sinking. A change of Government is needed."

What made you go into politics?

SO'B: "I came relatively late to a political career. I thought it wrong for people in my generation not to care about democracy after what the previous generation had done to save it. I couldn't sit on my hands any longer. The gains made in the past for our country and for succeeding generations are at risk. Representing people on a patch, being a constituency MP is a role I love."

What has been your biggest achievement so far in the political field?

SO'B: "So far, exposing the inadequacy of our Food labelling, particularly of food origins. The Government is resisting this but I will continue to press on that. I have also highlighted the plight of malaria as the major health issue and have got this on to the world agenda."

A few personal questions — what's your favourite drink?

"Red wine and I do enjoy, naturally on rare occasions, a whisky — Glenmorangie or Famous Grouse."

And you favourite music?

SO'B: "I am a musician myself — a pianist, conductor, cellist and organist. My favourite music is classical and if pressed to name one piece, for sentimental reasons it would by Haydn's 'The Creation' when my wife appeared in the soprano section."

And your ideal holiday?

SO'B: "We have had many family holidays on the Pembrokeshire coast and I also love the Lake District. Overseas, we have been lucky to have some trips to Corsica which I have really enjoyed."

Many Thanks.

Stephen O'Brien then joined a group of constituents of all shades of opinion where he took many questions on issues ranging from the environment to hospital car services.