Straight from the horses mouth....

Chat with Des from today's No 10 Webchat:

Mike Alderson: Is the defence budget sufficient given current commitments and general foreign policy?

Des replies: As the Prime Minister said last week, we need to make sure that our armed forces have the funding they need to carry out the vital tasks we have given them. We all accept that our troops are busier than we planned. We have invested heavily in our armed forces over the last ten years - in giving them the equipment and protection they need. We will continue to do so. You should be aware that the extra costs of operations like Iraq and Afghanistan do not come out of the ordinary defence budget. I am satisfied that we get enough money from the reserve to meet our current commitments.

Rachel Simpson: The Prime Minister called in the speech for a "debate" on defence issues. How can people like me, with a vested interest in the Armed Forces becaue of relatives, join this debate? We feel like that our concerns we are not listened to

Des replies: Like you I know how important it is for the public to understand the hard and dangerous work the forces do on our behalf which is why I am glad the PM has called for a wider public debate. I understand why someone like you would want to join this debate - it matters a lot to you. We want to hear from people like you. There are a number of ways you can take part. You can of course write to me. You will have your own member of Parliament, whose job it is to represent your views and interests whatever your politics. In addition, there are many organisations, from expert groups to groups that represent forces families. If you want the detail, go to and click on 'contact us'.

Adam Jeff: The proposed replacement for Trident would not be independent of the US. The US has and will continue for the foreseeable future to retain a nuclear deterrent which it would presumably use on any state which attacked us with WMD. So why waste so much money on our own deterrent?

Des replies: Our nuclear deterrent is, and will continue to be, independent. We explained in the White Paper why we need a deterrent and why we must fill that need ourselves rather than relying on any other state.

Tom Moseley: Tony Blair says it's 'inconceivable' that Portsmouth naval base will close; does this mean it's safe from major cuts?

Des replies: There has been a lot of stuff in the news about cuts to the Royal Navy. I'd like to put the record straight. Far from cutting spending, we have been investing in the Royal Navy to provide modern, effective ships - which we need as much as ever. It is only right that we review the bases which support our ships, including Portsmouth, to make sure the Navy gets the best support and that we get the most out of the money we have for Defence. We are in the middle of this review so it would be wrong to pre-empt it, but I can say we have asked the review to take into account the valuable contributions of all our naval bases.

Wayne Owers: Is it not high time the Armed Forces received a substantial pay rise. We consistently talk about the under funding of equipment and accomodation but what about the most important comodity - the overstretched manpower.

Des replies: You are right that the most important strength of our armed forces is our people, and it is important that they get the pay they deserve for the amazing work they do. We have an independent Pay Review Body to look at this every year. Recently they did a study which showed that our armed forces are among the best paid in the world - but I accept that there is still an issue with the most junior ranks which we need to tackle. I also believe we need to recognise the special contribution our forces make in places like Iraq and Afghanistan - which is why in October I announced a new operational bonus giving a soldier on a six month tour over £2000 tax free.

Mr Twaha Mukiibi: My son is expected to be sent to iraq to serve his beloved country. Mr Browne, what kind of support is in place for parents like me and my family during the time our boy will be away?

Des replies: This is a difficult time for you like other forces' families and it is vital that you get this support. The best place to go for this support is your son's unit - they are the people who will have the best appreciation of what you need.

James Lemkes: has a date been agreed yet when the condtruction of the two new Aircraft carriers will commence?

Des replies: No date has been set. This is a very complex project running over many years - we need to get it right. We are still finalising the design and discussing it with industry. As soon as we can, we will make an announcement - in the first place to Parliament.

violet cosby: my brother was killed in the summer. the way in which the family have been dealt with since is un exceptable. why is it that not only are we expected to deal with the loss of our loved ones but also have to constantly follow up on the mod and make sure thry are doing there job properly regarding our own aftercare.

Des replies: I am sorry for the loss of your brother. This must be a very difficult time for you and your family - and it is totally unacceptable if you are having to chase up the support that you need and deserve. Clearly I don't know the details of your case, but you should write directly to me at the Ministry of Defence and I will deal with it.

Rosie Brown: In light of the Prime Ministers comment that only a minority of Forces Housing is below standard, why are forces families in the UK currently having to cope with boilers and cookers that are failing? We are being told that there is simply no money to provide us with replacements.

Des replies: We recognise the problem with service housing - this is a big and important issue. We are putting money in - 700 million last year and five billion over the next ten years - and working with the Army and the other Services to tackle it - but there is a lot of work to do. These problems go back decades.

Diana Donald: Clearly there is little respect for our armed forces by this government and morale is low. Our country needs defending, but with more demands and fall out escalating, what do you intend doing to change the situation? In other words you keep cutting our armed forces, including mothballing most of our ships, but demanding more. We are involved in a war which has little to do with the safety of the UK and I suggest you put more value on our forces, encourage recruitment and have most of them at home defending our country and our borders.

Des replies:
I completely reject the idea that morale is low. I have been out many times to see our troops on operations and morale is consistently high - and you will hear the same from their commanders and from anyone who has been out to see from themselves. Just assuming that because they are involved in hard fighting their morale is low is plain wrong and sells short their courage and professionalism. I also disagree fundamentally with the idea that the best way to protect the UK is to have the troops at home. I am in no doubt that the threats we face in this world are better dealt with as far away from our own borders as possible.

Matthew Deakin: With the problems the armed forces are having with recruitment and the problems we, as a country, are having with anti social behaviour with young people having no discipline and respect for themselves and others, is it now time to re-introduce national service?

Des replies: With respect I think the assumption underlying this question is wrong. Recruitment is holding up well. In some specialised areas we have difficulties with retention - but part of this is due to the training and skills we give to our people in the military which are in great demand outside. We are addressing this with special payments. As far as national service is concerned, long ago we decided as a country that we needed an armed forces of volunteer professionals. The armed forces themselves agree.

Alexander Smotrov: Defence Secretary, in your speech to Chatham House members last November you indicated that the control over Maysan province in Iraq can be handed over to Iraqis already in January this year. Are these plans still in place? Can you briefly outline the UK forces strategy in this regard?

Des replies: I said that we and the Iraqis hoped they would be ready to take over Maysan in January. But I also said that these decisions - as with the whole process of the Iraqis taking over their own security - will be based not on deadlines but on conditions on the ground. Maysan is still stable and we are discussing this with our allies and with the Iraqis but we are not going to force this process. I set out our strategy in the same speech, it is on the MoD website at

Tony Leeks: Mr Brown, as you have only been in the job a very short while how can you say "You have been to see the troops MANY times"? How many times ? Morale not low! Troops in Basra were detailed off to be present when the PM visited just before Christmas.

Des replies: I have been to Iraq three times and Afghanistan twice. I have further visits to both planned in the near future. I went to Colchester to meet the Paras on their return from Afghanistan. I can say categorically that morale is high.

Chris: I have never seen the Westminster Ivory Tower, although it seems to be an agreeable place to live. Back to reality: considering the amount of body bags being sent back from Afghanistan and Iraq (the internal home page looks like an obituary column), does the Government really think it has many more youngsters willing to sign up, fight and die before they are 25?

Des replies: Sending troops to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan is a serious responsibility. All of us who have to take these decisions take them very seriously. In the MoD, many are military who have themselves served on operations and understand the risks. So do the young people who join the forces.

Ben Folley: Is the government not concerned that its arguments for maintaining a nuclear weapons system could equally be argued by current non-nuclear weapon states?

Des replies: The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) places different obligations on Recognised Nuclear Weapons States and others. The vast majority of states in the world signed up to the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states. This gives them an obligation not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. The UK, as a Recognised Nuclear Weapon State, is obliged under the NPT to work multilaterally towards disarmament. This is what we have done consistently over recent decades and we will continue to do.

Matthew D'Arcy: Could a consolidation of defence training resources at St Athan draw investment away from other areas of the UK where there are currently existing training facilities?

Des replies: Everyone agrees that in order to provide the best training for our armed forces into the future we needed to develop centres of excellence. The choice we faced was where to do this, not whether to do it.

Melanie Pullan: In his Our Nation speech the Prime Minister said that there would be, "increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of our Armed Forces". Does this mean new money for Defence overall or just a re-balancing of priorities within the Defence budget i.e. robbing Peter to pay Paul? For example, will there be new funding from the Treasury to pay for a sustained upgrade programme for service accommodation?

Des replies: We need to do both. We need to fund Defence properly, and we need to review the way we spend the current budget to make sure it is being spent on the equipment we really need, as well as other priorities like pay and accommodation. We have always planned to spend five billion on service accommodation over the next ten years.

Des says: I'm sorry I don't have time to answer more, but these are serious questions and don't lend themselves to simple glib answers. The number and nature of the questions shows clearly the interest in Defence and the support our armed forces have around the country. Thank you on behalf of all us involved in Defence.

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