Des Browne: You Ask The Questions

The Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary of State for Scotland answers your questions, such as 'Can you rule out military action in Iran?' and 'Do troops really buy their own boots?'
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The Independent Online

At a time when the UK is hugely committed in conflicts, shouldn't we have a full-time Defence Secretary?

M Kershaw

Exeter

You do. I've visited operational theatres – Iraq and Afghanistan – 12 times since taking the job. I'm dedicated and I spend every day of the week on defence issues.

Was the invasion of Iraq a mistake?

Henry Ravel

by email.

No I don't think it was – although I recognise that this is a question that people have strong views about. The operations in Iraq removed a despicable regime that brutally oppressed its people and threatened the security of the region. Today, the levels of violence in Iraq remain tragic and absolutely unacceptable. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that Iraq still has the potential for a secure, stable and prosperous future.

We should never forget that 75 per cent of registered Iraqi voters defied the men of violence to vote for Iraq's first fully democratic and representative government in 2005. Iraq's democracy is still very young, but the vast majority of people in Iraq want to embrace the chance they have been given.

Do you get paid two salaries for your two jobs?

Ravi Jai

by email

No.

What do you think of parliamentary colleagues who have admitted using drugs and breaking laws that lead to less fortunate people being jailed?

Pete Christie

Hackney.

The question implies some sort of special treatment for MPs and I see no evidence of that. I do not condone this behaviour but the things that a few MPs have admitted to do doing, like smoking dope, were in their youth.

Is it true that our soldiers have to buy their own boots?

Sue Clapham

Grimsby

It's absolutely not true, although a very small number may choose to do so. We supply a range to suit different conditions, from desert boots to cold weather boots.

This year we're introducing a second desert combat boot and in future months we'll be able offer troops a choice. For the first time this spring there will be a boot for female troops which has been specifically designed to fit the shape of a women's foot.

Which military leader in history do you most admire, and why?

Bill Carter

Edinburgh

There are so many to choose from – and a good number have been British: Nelson, Wellington, Marlborough, Henry V, John Moore, Montgomery and Churchill. I think the greatest would be Alexander the Great. He was an inspirational leader, a brilliant strategist, a talented logistician and an outstanding statesman to boot.

Doesn't the recruitment crisis in the armed services prove that the war in Iraq was unpopular, divisive and ill-judged?

Sarah Craig

Morden, London

I do not agree that there is a crisis. The latest figures from November show that recruitment is improving overall.

As someone with expertise in family law, do you think family courts are biased against fathers?

David Russell

by email

No. I haven't practised law for 10 years, but in my experience the right answer was always found when the courts and all involved put the interests of the child first. However, sadly it was also my experience that some parents found it hard to put aside the arguments with their partners in order to put their children's interests first.

Why have we got a smaller armed forces than we did in 1997?

Colin Murphy

Belfast

The challenges our Armed Forces face are very different from 1997. We do not, and should not, measure their effectiveness by sheer numbers. We now have a highly mobile and adaptable force, with equipment that's more effective than even a few years ago. In order to achieve a more mobile armed forces, we've had to reduce the overall size.

You were involved in the Orkney sex abuse case as a lawyer. What did you learn from this?

Louise Sinclair

Perth

I went to the Orkney Islands thinking I would be there for six weeks and ended up staying for a year – which impressed upon me that public inquiries can last too long and cost a lot of money. Full public inquiries driven by the legal profession are not always the right answer. However I was proud of the important contribution that the inquiry made to the development of child abuse policy. At that time in Scotland child abuse policy needed changing and modernising

Now that it is a part-time job, should the role of Scottish Secretary be phased out altogether and save the taxpayer some money?

Vincent Andrews

Clydebank

No, I don't think so. Many of the issues that most affect Scots are delivered by Westminster. Scotland benefits from a direct voice at Cabinet meetings. I work closely with UK and Scottish ministers to get the best for Scotland.

I'm a heavily overweight man who does no exercise and likes a drink and a smoke. Should doctors have the right to refuse me treatment?

Hugh Macdonald

Glasgow

NHS treatment has to be free at the point of the delivery for everyone. But I can personally recommend quitting fags - I gave up about 10 years ago and feel a lot healthier for it.

You have been described as 'Mr Middle of the Road'. Fair comment?

Zac Jacobs

Shoreditch, east London.

If that means that I represent the ordinary people of the UK then I don't mind being described that way, but I don't spend too much time worrying about how I am described in public – I have plenty of other things to keep me busy.

Do you accept that the armed forces are under-equipped and over-stretched?

Fred Bartlett

Manchester

No. They are better equipped now than ever. In the past three years alone, £10bn's worth of new equipment has been delivered. And they are not "over-stretched". They're certainly busy but they're succeeding. And our operational commitment is coming down following the troop level reductions in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq.

Will you categorically rule out military action against Iran?

Fiona Callaghan

Edinburgh

I can assure you that we are 100 per cent focused on a diplomatic resolution

The merging of many grand old regiments has caused a lot of resentment in the military. Do you regret the decision?

Andy Chorlton

Kent

The history and traditions will remain. One of reasons we decided to change the structure was to create more flexibility, allow greater stability for our service personnel and their families. The old system required them to move bases as often as every two years. I do not regret the decision at all.

If you were called to service tomorrow, which of the armed services would you join?

Paul Leithead

by email

I would be honoured to serve in any one of them.

The Scottish people want independence. Why won't you let us have it?

Don Brewer

Fife

I think it's clear that Scotland has consistently rejected separation. Two-thirds of the votes cast in the last Scottish Parliament elections were for unionist parties. And all opinion polls show that only a small minority favour independence.

Most of Afghanistan is back in the hands of the Taliban. When will we be pulling out of there, too?

John McCormick

Newcastle

Most of Afghanistan is in the hands of the Government of Afghanistan. It's true that the Taliban still have a strong presence in places – mainly in the south – but they have not presented a strategic threat to government.

You've always taken a tough line on drugs. How do you feel about the resurgence in the opium trade since the overthrow of the Taliban?

A Khan

London, E3

Drugs pose a grave threat to the long-term security and development of Afghanistan. The drugs trade feeds on and contributes to insecurity. We've made progress - in 2006 there were six poppy-free provinces, by 2007 there were 13. But there are no short cuts.

How did you get your decision to allow sailors captured by Iran to sell their stories to newspapers so badly wrong?

David Reynolds

Durham

As I admitted at the time, a mistake was made – the decision to allow them to sell their stories was wrong and I said sorry on behalf of the whole department.

Do you support Gordon Brown when he demands 'British jobs for British workers?'

Ben Clarke

Guildford.

We want to ensure British workers who have not yet been able to take advantage of opportunities in the economy can do so. There is no lack of jobs, but of skills and links between employers who need workers and workers who need jobs. These are issues we need to tackle.

Will you tell us a joke?

Simon Cooper

by email

Man walks into a pet shop and asks for a wasp. The pet shop owner says, "We don't sell wasps sir". The man says, "Well why have you got them in the window then?"

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