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Steve O'Connell on gay marriage, police and his salary

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THE boxing ring may seem an unlikely place for Croydon's Greater London Assembly member to hang out, but Steve O'Connell credits the fight game for his recent weight loss. So what happened when we brought this political heavyweight together with our own David Churchill, for 12 rounds of tough questioning at Dynamo Boxing in South Croydon. Let's get ready to rumble... ROUND 1 – POLITICS:

Reporter David Churchill: It's been a big political year for Croydon, what with a by-election and the mayoral elections. What has been your highlight and why?

Steve O' Connell: Speaking selfishly it would be my victory back in May to be returned as the Assembly member for Croydon and Sutton with a good majority, even on a difficult day for the party and also to get Boris returned as well. So for me that is my highlight of the year.

DC:Why do you say a bad day for the party?

SOC: Well it was if you look at the national trend... Two of my colleagues lost their seats from the assembly and there was a strong Labour vote in the City and I was pleased in that context that my vote was a good one.

ROUND 2 – CROYDON'S FUTURE:

DC: What are your main goals and priorities for 2013 for Croydon, and what do you want to see delivered by the end of the new year?

SOC: One thing with my cabinet responsibility is to deliver a balanced budget for the council while also delivering good services for our most vulnerable residents. That is an important one for me. It's also in the context of the economic challenge, and I want to make sure the council again performs well. From an Assembly point of view, I want to continue holding the mayor to account and ensuring that Croydon and Sutton get, as ever, their fair share of resources from the mayor.

ROUND 3 – CUTS

DC: You say it's about protecting the most vulnerable in society, but last week the Croydon Advertiser revealed the full extent of cuts, which include £1.7 million cuts in early intervention, family support and integrated youth services; tens of thousands in cuts for older people and cuts to lollipop men and women. Do you really think you're protecting the most vulnerable people in society, and isn't it the case that these kind of cuts are in some cases dangerous?

SOC: They are not dangerous. Nobody wants to make cuts but the proportion of cuts around our savings package is relatively small. We've managed over some years to get efficiencies to take a lot of pressure out of the budget and the small cuts package, which I'm not underplaying at all. What you've got to look at is the alternative and remember the alternative. I believe Labour would just whack up the council tax as they've got a track record of doing that and what that does is it hits everybody including the most vulnerable people; they find their bills going up and we're trying to protect everyone by keeping council tax low.

DC: Could there perhaps be an argument for those in more affluent areas to pay a little more, so the vulnerable don't see services hit and bills rise?

SOC: It's a good point. We want to keep council tax as low as possible for everyone. People in affluent areas do pay higher council tax generally anyway because of the band [house] they live in, so they are making a very big contribution.

I think the council tax among all my residents is higher than I would like to see it. In an ideal world, I'd like to see less burden for all my council taxpayers, but as a council we need to deliver services to the most vulnerable and we are getting increasingly a worse deal from central government, so we need to continue to protect residents and keep our council tax low in the context of getting less money from overnment. But we don't want to see people paying more.

ROUND 4 – CONSERVATIVES VS LABOUR:

DC: How different would Croydon look under a Labour administration?

SOC: You have to go back to when they misruled for 12 years; you had thumping council tax rises, a 27 per cent council tax rise I think it was, which would hit everyone. That would hit everybody, those on low pay, those trying to make ends meet. The last thing you need is them whacking up the council tax and I have no doubt that had we had a Labour council come in, you'd see them hiking up the council tax on every family in Croydon and I wouldn't want that for our residents.

ROUND 5 – ARE YOU WORTH IT?

DC: Talking about sums, it has been widely reported with all your public roles combined you claim more than £100,000 in salary a year. What makes you worth the money?

SOC: Well I don't claim any expenses. But let's go through it…I think…my salary…is £53,000, plus £13,000…£66,000…about £98,000. It's not £100,000 now, it's just under. Ultimately, I work very hard and people decide to elect me or not, and I get appointed. I don't think about the remuneration I just work very hard for it. I'll let others debate sums.

ROUND 6 – CROYDON SOUTH SEAT:

DC: Richard Ottaway announced that he is stepping down at the next general election. Who would you like to see become the next MP for Croydon South?

SOC: I don't know. I'd like to see someone who would work incredibly hard for the people of Croydon South and the issues affecting them.

DC: Would you like to see Boris as the next MP?

SOC: Would I like to see Boris? I think Boris would serve residents well, I think he'd be a good MP if he chose to put his hat in the ring, but I really don't know if he will. I think he would make a good MP. I'd personally have no problem with Boris if he threw his hat in the ring along with everybody else. It's up to the members in Croydon South to decide, but I don't think he will become MP.

DC: He hasn't ruled himself out – do you think there's a chance?

SOC: As we speak now, I don't think so. If I was a betting man, which I'm not, I don't think there's a strong chance, but it's a year away, a year away from selecting, and I would just say it's not likely. He's promised to serve out his term as mayor and that exists until 2016, the election being 2015. You'd have to ask Boris himself but if you're saying do I think he will put his hat in the ring, as we speak, I think it's unlikely.

ROUND 7 – YOUR FUTURE:

DC: Would it be an attractive proposition for yourself?

SOC: I'll have to think about this one…Well, you know I said before I'm delighted to be re-elected, I think there will be a lot of people interested, and I've always said I would like to serve my residents at any level I can…

DC: …And that includes as MP?

SOC: Yeah, but as I say, I'm fairly happy to be a GLA member. My priority is to be a GLA member.

DC: Say if it comes to 2015 or when they are making the selection and it's clear that people need representation at that level, you're a local man and people are in support of you, will you run?

SOC: I'd have to decide if it was appropriate nearer the time.

ROUND 8 – POLICE:

DC: There are now hundreds fewer police on the streets than two years ago. Are you not taking a huge gamble by doing that, in terms of risking a return of the scenes we saw last summer?

SOC: No, I'll take that head on. the mayor has increased the number of police over his mayoral term…

DC: …But the number of fully-warranted officers is down…

SOC: …What the mayor has committed to do is increase the number of constables to 25,000, he's committed to put an extra 2,000 safer neighbourhoods [constables] and he's committed to further reducing crime by 20 per cent – all of this with a cut in the budget of 20 per cent. I will say to you and sit down with you in a year's time and I will bet you a month's membership of this gym that there are more cops in Croydon. We will see under this mayor an increase in police in Croydon.

DC: But that comes after already reducing numbers…

SOC: …no, you will see more cops in Croydon than there have been for some considerable time.

DC: How are you going to deliver that with the cuts that are being made?

SOC: Well, that's a really good point, the money has got to be found and I still come back to the challenge you have got to take costs out of the organisation and one of those costs is the estate. The estate is immensely costly, there are a lot of buildings across London and I still think residents would rather see extra constables than police buildings. The budget is £3.5 billion and £500 million needs to be taken out which means you still have a budget of £3 billion, which is still a big budget. So there is a big chunk we must take out. If the mayor doesn't deliver he can be voted out. We will be held to account. I am committed to this. If that is not the case, you can sit down with me in a year's time and you can hold me to account…

DC: …And then your chances of becoming the next Croydon South MP would be severely damaged…

SOC: …[laughs] I suppose they would.

ROUND 9 – GAY MARRIAGE:

DC: In your party at the moment there is a huge debate going on about the issue of gay marriage. Do you want to see gay marriages being conducted in Croydon?

SOC: It's a complicated one. There is a strong religious community and I know a lot of people feel very deeply about this.

Speaking to some gay people myself, many of them are happy with civil partnerships; they have already got it right with civil partnerships which I think is a great thing.

What you've got to do is think about everybody, but if it comes at a price of trampling over a lot of other people's deeply held beliefs, we have to be very careful. I'm not a deeply religious person, but there are a lot of people who deeply believe the sanctity of marriage is between a man and a woman and that is an unshakeable faith, and I think society has to be very careful of trampling over those beliefs to accommodate another group of people.

So I am uncomfortable with it, and I think we need to think more deeply about it. But if I'm honest I think the Government has got far more important things to do.

DC: Do you think civil partnerships for now then…

SOC: If it was me I would stick with civil partnerships. Let's park the issue. I just don't think it's the time now for this debate.

ROUND 10 – DIVERSITY:

DC: Census figures released last week show white Britons now make up less than 50 per cent of Croydon's population. We are becoming increasingly diverse. Do you think Croydon as a borough has integrated well?

SOC: I think we're pretty well integrated. Community cohesion is strong. People generally tend to get along well and that's the most important thing and I think the main problem is the problem that will affect all of us. I go round all of Croydon and I see people in Croydon generally working along together really well.

ROUND 11 – PALACE:

DC: You're a big Palace fan, do you think they'll hold onto Zaha and do you think they'll be in the Premiership next season?

SOC: I think we're going up. Palace are on their way up, possibly at the end of the season through a play-off place I think. I was at Birmingham on Saturday and we were fed up when we left because we only drew. Now, a year ago, we'd have been painting the town red and blue because we got a point away from home. So it shows our raised expectations. And it's not just Zaha, I think we will keep Zaha 'til the end of the season, but there are some other great players – Bolasie is fantastic.

I think Holloway will buy us a couple of players in January. I'm seeing him tomorrow night so I'll give him a poke and say "you need to strengthen the squad". We'll be at least in the play-off places, so Premiership next year.

ROUND 12 – WHY BOXING IN YOUR SPARE TIME?

DC: Why the boxing gym? Why do you like to do this in your spare? time

SOC: My dad was a big boxing fan and I went to the same school as Henry Cooper. Also, I realised a year ago I was a fat lump and I've got difficult knees after a life of sport – that knee is a new knee [points to left knee], that's metal after wear and tear and playing sport all my life. I have no cartilage, so with pain on the knees I realised I needed to lose weight. It was putting pressure on them. I have very little time to myself but I wanted to take up something I can take out with my martial instincts with a punchbag. I can come along and work out twice a week and feel much better.

EDITOR'S VERDICT

Churchill landed a few killer blows with his tough questions on policing and cuts, while the gay marriage haymaker had O' Connell on the ropes. But the Spice Boy responded with some decent counterpunches about diversity and his love of Crystal Palace.

I'm calling this a draw – time for a rematch?

A boxing gym may not seem the most likely place for a 50-year-old politician, but Martin Dilworth, fitness and performance director at Dynamo Boxing, says middle-aged, white-collar professionals are not a rare sight around the gym. Mr Dilworth, 49, said: "Steve has been fantastic since he came here, and at the end of the day, he should be making better, faster, more intelligent decisions for his constituents. "They're the ones that are going to him and saying, 'I need you to help me to sort this out', and he's been able to do it faster and better than before, because I know that will be the case, and that's the biggest plus. "But his age group and type of profession isn't alien to me. With any high-level thought process management, the fitter you are, the better you are. "If every politician was made to be fit, their thought process is going to be better, because you're more mentally agile." For more details, call Martin at Dynamo Boxing on 020 8916 2080.

Steve O'Connell on gay marriage, police and his salary


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