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Green space more essential to women

Women living in deprived areas with little green space are more likely to be stressed than men living in the same circumstances. Research published in an international journal on public health shows that there are significant gender differences in stress patterns by levels of green space. Women in lower green space areas show higher overall levels of stress, according to the research, led by OPENspace research centre at the Universities of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt. The same does not appear to be true of men living in the same areas; an anomaly which the study suggests requires further investigation.

Those in deprived areas suffer the most

Those in deprived areas suffer the most

Researchers looked specifically at the concentration of cortisol, the stress hormone, in men and women living in deprived urban areas in Scotland. They then looked at people’s perception of their stress levels and measured the relationship between gender and percentage of green space on mean cortisol concentrations. They found there was a positive effect of higher green space on women, but not in men.

The effects of contact with green space and a lowering of stress levels is thought to be associated with factors including increased physical activity which improves mood; increased social contact and better mental wellbeing. Contact with nature has also been shown to have positive effects on blood pressure and heart rate. However, most studies which have measured cortisol levels in relation to contact with nature have focused only on the levels immediately before and after contact with nature. This new study measured patterns in people’s daily lives

It concludes:

    in both men and women, perceived stress was higher in low green space areas, but women’s perceived stress was significantly higher in low green space areas than men’s
    perceived stress was higher for people with no garden, especially men

    both men and women living in deprived areas with higher levels of green space report less perceived stress and appear to be more resilient to the negative effects of urban deprivation

Dr Jenny Roe Heriot Watt University

Dr Jenny Roe
Heriot Watt University

Speaking on behalf of the research team, lead author Dr Jenny Roe from Heriot Watt University pointed out that the results were “important in understanding how neighbourhood green space might contribute to public health improvement. Stress is known to impact on cardiovascular health, alongside other risk factors such as genetics, age, diet and physical activity, but little is known about the contributions of environmental factors. We already know that higher levels of green space are associated with reduced cardio-vascular mortality. Our new study indicates that neighbourhood green space is associated with perceptions of stress as well as the levels of stress hormones in the body and this may be a pathway by which the environment can impact health. While we need more research to understand these mechanisms, our study represents a valuable step in establishing a biological pathway linking green space with stress levels in deprived urban environments.”

The research was carried out in collaboration with the Universities of Glasgow and Westminster, Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland and the James Hutton Institute.

The Independence Debate Continues

The months when politicians take their summer break is often referred to as “the silly season”. However, it is also time for reflection, away from the hurly-burly of the daily debate which goes on both in Edinburgh and Westminster. So it is that two of our political figures have been delivering measured comment on Scotland’s future.

Alex Salmond MSP First Minister

Alex Salmond MSP
First Minister

Let’s start with the First Minister, Alex Salmond, who delivered a speech in Hawick earlier today. He focused primarily on Scotland’s relationship with the European Union, insisting that this country would have more of a say when it chose to be independent. He also expressed fears that Scotland’s voice in Europe could be silenced if, following the referendum on membership promised by Prime Minister, David Cameron, the UK “were to sleepwalk out of the EU.”

“If we don’t become independent,” he said, “we won’t have control over what happens. It’s an all-too-real example of why it will be better for all of us if decisions about Scotland are taken by the people who care most about Scotland – those who live and work here.”

Mr Salmond went on to stress that small countries had shown that they could “wield great influence”. By way of example, he pointed to the way in which Denmark had used its presidency of the EU Council to drive forward major reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. “Scotland worked closely with Denmark,” he explained, “but we had no capacity to lead reforms in the same way that Denmark could.

Denmark held the EU Presidency

Denmark held the EU Presidency

“These countries often wield great influence. After all, the EU is an organisation where negotiation trumps ultimatum; where the strength of your ideas can matter more than the size of your population. Not being at the top table has harmed our interests for four decades. Within the UK, we are occasionally consulted. With independence, we would contribute as equals.”

In a more reflective foray, the former First Minister, Henry McLeish, set out his stall in an essay penned for The Scotsman. In it, he claimed that the Tories and much of the unionist establishment could be described as “indirectly hastening the breakup of Britain”. Indeed he even claims that Conservatism in London could be “a much bigger threat to the union than nationalism in Edinburgh”.

Mr McLeish argues that a “perfect storm of issues, events and toxic politics is brewing not in Scotland but in London, at Westminster and Conservative Party HQ, which, over the next 12 months, could engulf the referendum campaign and impact the mood and mindset of a nation, change the political psychology of how Scots might vote and ultimately determine the outcome of the vote.”

Former First Minister Henry McLeish

Former First Minister
Henry McLeish

He goes on to warn that the ‘No’ campaign seems oblivious to what might happen or is simply ignoring the signals. As he explains, “a recent headline seemed to capture the scenario facing Scots – “Independence is risky, but Union is even scarier”. There is little doubt Scots would not like to see their future through the prism of the current UK government and their fear this could be their shared destiny within the Union at Westminster. This is the nightmare scenario.”

He discusses the potential impact of UKIP on politics south of the Border, and analyses the current debate within the Labour Party over what, if anything, it stands for. And this is a problem for Labour both at UK and at Scottish levels. Mr McLeish points out that, in London, “Labour has to reconnect with the electors and show willingness to transform a tired and dated Union and set out a new direction for a modern, federated, flexible and fairer one, where maximum powers are available to Scotland and the English question is addressed.

“Labour in Scotland has to engage with identity and nationality, difference and diversity, and start to believe in Scotland as a nation. Labour should be arguing for a Union worthy of its name and where each country can work out its own destiny. Saving the Union by respecting Scotland’s demands and ambitions is a small price to pay for stable politics. If this is not a price the unionist parties can pay, Scottish voters may have no option but to vote to end the historic links and build a new Scotland.”

In putting forward his thoughts, Henry McLeish is today looking at Scotland almost as an outsider with inside knowledge. Since leaving politics, he has spent much of his time in North America, where he holds a visiting professorship at the University of Arkansas School of Law and a position at the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. Unlike Alex Salmond who remains deeply embroiled in the campaign to persuade Scots to vote for independence next year, Mr McLeish can at least now afford to stand back and offer a more thoughtful, reflective and impartial perspective.

I was brought up in the Church of Scotland. (My parents were, rather obviously, fans of its founder.) But like most Presbyterians I suffer from a mixture of pride and despair when I read and watch reports of its General Assembly which has been taking place in Edinburgh this week.

General Assembly LogoThe Assembly of 850 ministers and elders made headlines with their series of cartwheels on the issue of the appointment of gay ministers. When they came upright again – if I can use that term – they voted by 340 to 282 to stick to their original doctrine of no sex outside marriage but they would allow individual congregations to elect gay ministers if they wanted to.

As you can perhaps imagine, there was a lot of dancing on theological pinheads before they arrived at this happy compromise, which hopefully will head off another Disruption. So far, only two congregations have left over the issue.

Quite why the church spends so many theological hours in the bedroom is beyond me. I would have thought there are more important issues to address in the living room or the kitchen, or the garden or the wider world.

To be fair, this week’s Assembly has had debates on poverty, the state of the Kirk’s caring services (which employ no fewer than 1300 people) its overseas development programme (this year featuring Bolivia) and its peace efforts in Israel and the Middle East. But these worthy issues always seem to be been overshadowed by such personal issues as gay clergy. Gay marriage is another bedroom issue on which the church is clashing with the rest of society, or at least with the Scottish and Westminster governments.

It’s not much wonder that only 40 per cent of the Scottish population tell the Census they are members of the Church of Scotland, only 16 per cent say they are Roman Catholics and a third say they have no religion at all.

John Knox

John Knox

The original John Knox would turn in his grave, under that car park by St Giles, if he knew how we had betrayed his Reformation of 1560. After all, his main point was that personal beliefs were a matter between the individual and his God – whoever or whatever He is. The Reformation set everyone free to make his own way to heaven. And that, in my view at least, means the Church has to accept a spectrum of belief – from fundamentalists who take the Bible as literally true, to liberals who regard it as a collection of symbolic stories which help us think about the spiritual issues of life. But right now, as I see it, the fundamentalists are winning and the Kirk has ceased to be a broad church.

So, having got that sermon off my chest, what else has been happening this week? The terrorist attack in London, in which a soldier was decapitated by suspected Islamic extremists, was condemned in the Scottish Parliament, as it was at Westminster. And party leaders here have been anxious to calm nerves and express the hope that it will not lead to religious or racial tensions.

Alex Salmond MSP

Alex Salmond MSP

But soon, normal service was resumed with the politicians trading figures over Scottish independence. On Tuesday, the first minister Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon went to the Alexander-Dennis bus manufacturer in Falkirk to launch a booklet outlining the economic case for independence. Scotland they said was a country rich in natural resources but held back by governments in London. Scots had paid more in tax per head than the rest of the UK for every one of the last 30 years (including oil revenue), so an independent government would have more to spend on public services. And it could encourage growth in the private sector by cutting corporation tax to 3 per cent below the UK rate (ie to 17 per cent).

Meanwhile the UK Treasury brought out a report saying an independent Scotland would not be able to guarantee bank deposits and it would struggle to protect pension funds. Others raised the spectre of an influx of students from England after independence because they would not have to pay university tuition fees.

Isle of Lewis

Isle of Lewis

The SNP fought back by announcing government permission for the world’s largest wave power project, off the north coast of the Isle of Lewis. Aquamarine have plans for a 40MW “wave power farm” capable of powering 30,000 homes, more than double the number of households in the Western Isles. The company is currently testing its machines in the Pentland Firth. All it needs now is the miracle — a cable connection to the grid.

And speaking of miracles, there were two last weekend here in Edinburgh. One was the feeding of the 5000 who turned up to the Kirk’s “Heart and Soul” outdoor event in Princes Street Gardens, complete with picnics, music, games and doves of peace. The other was the feeding of the 4000 cyclists who pedalled to the Scottish Parliament to demand that 5 per cent of the transport budget be devoted to cycling. They were led by Graeme Obree. Where was our other cycling hero, Sir Chris Hoy? Well, he was pictured later in the week arriving at the General Assembly as one of its special guests. So perhaps the Kirk is about to get on its bike and go through another life cycle.

By Laura McMahon
Policy Executive, CBI Scotland

The UK Government is currently considering whether to introduce new legislation which will compel public affairs consultancies to adhere to a statutory register of lobbyists. The CBI believes that it is right that policymakers reflect on the ways in which policy is influenced and seek to ensure it is done in a transparent and proper way, and we responded to the recent consultation to this effect.

Here in Scotland the Lothians MSP, Neil Findlay, has published proposals for a Lobbying Transparency (Scotland) Bill. His Bill proposes going much further. In addition to a statutory registration scheme for those lobbying Scottish Ministers, civil servants and MSPs, there would also be a statutory code of conduct to adhere too as well.

Mr Findlay’s Bill, if enacted, wouldn’t just apply to public affairs consultancies though. Charities, trade unions, trade and professional associations, think tanks, as well as company in-house public affairs staff – and indeed any company or third sector organisation involved in the design or delivery of public services – would be caught up within the ambit of the Bill too. This may help explain why SCVO and others have voiced scepticism over Mr Findlay’s proposed legislation.

Let’s be clear, such an extensive scheme would not be cost free. The Bill would mean that companies and others caught up in the legislation would have to institute and maintain an organisation-wide system for tracking employee interactions with public officials, develop a process for aggregating organisation-wide data, and disclose the relevant information in a single report perhaps four or more times a year. This is a situation we are seeking to avoid in Scotland and indeed the UK.

Demands for legislation on lobbying often overlook a key point, namely that lobbying is crucial to the creation of effective, informed and pragmatic public policy decisions. Any regulatory proposals on lobbying must strike the right balance between improving transparency and upholding existing freedoms, enabling dialogue for external parties with Government and decision makers.

The CBI and its members engage with government and parliamentarians throughout the public policy development process, at times proactively and also at the invitation of government. Furthermore some of this interaction is actually required by government, e.g. through the planning system or through Business & Regulatory Impact Assessments. This reciprocal dialogue is in the mutual, long-term interest of optimal public policy. Moreover, with significant constraints on the public finances, this engagement can also provide a cost-effective way for the government to develop sound public policy.

The MSP behind the proposed Holyrood legislation has yet to clearly set out the problem that a statutory register would be intended to address, the causes of this problem, and how a statutory registration scheme would provide a resolution. We have not seen wider evidence of a fundamental problem with lobbying in Scotland necessitating this regulatory intervention. Clarification on these points must be provided before proposals are taken forward in Scotland. The legislative proposal on the table at the moment risks being seen as a solution in search of a problem.

It is also important to note that many recent so-called lobbying ‘scandals’ at Westminster, which have given rise to some calls for regulation at a UK level, in fact constitute examples of improper behaviour by elected representatives rather than being inherent problems with lobbying.

It is worth bearing in mind that Scottish Ministers’ meetings with external parties are already subject to Freedom of Information legislation, which include provisions for the release of appropriate information upon request. Furthermore, it is already within the power of MSPs to publish a record of their own meetings with lobbyists, as is set out in Section 5.1.5 of the MSPs’ Code of Conduct. This could be strengthened so there is a presumption in favour of publishing details of such meetings.

If parliamentarians insist on introducing legislation in this area then, first and foremost, any proposals must be judged against the Scottish Government’s principles for ‘better regulation’ and subject to a full Business & Regulatory Impact Assessment. This will mean possible alternative ways to deliver the same goal are looked at, and will help ensure the final policy outcomes do not have an overly burdensome regulatory impact and can be implemented effectively.

Secondly, let’s ensure some consistency between the approaches taken north and south of the border. A consistent approach would help to avoid unnecessary administrative complexity for businesses, charities and others trying to navigate different regimes at Holyrood and at Westminster.

Fundamentally, we do not believe that a convincing case has been made for new legislation in this area. This is even more so at a time when there are plenty of other more pressing issues that our parliamentarians ought to be focusing on.

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) has accused the Government in London of imposing “criminal cuts” in welfare which will “devastate families and communities in Scotland”. It’s published a new survey which suggests that Third Sector organisations could “struggle to pick up the pieces of the biggest attack on the poor in generations”. The report main conclusions include:

• Three quarters of charities expect demand for services to increase significantly over the next year
• With 80% of welfare cuts still to come, 63% of charities will be affected by welfare reform
• 57% of organisations engaged in welfare activity are providing crisis support and
• 69% are providing advice on benefits
• 81% of charities expect the financial situation for the sector to worsen in the next 12 months

The figures show that 81% of charities in Scotland expect the sector’s financial situation to deteriorate over the next year and they are concerned about meeting the record high demand for services as welfare cuts kick in.

In the view of Martin Sime, the SCVO’s Chief Executive, “It’s clear from this research that Westminster’s criminal cuts to welfare are putting so much pressure on charities’ services that some will struggle to keep up with demand from people and families in Scotland. The unprecedented worry and uncertainty surrounding the cuts is hitting the poorest the hardest as they face an endless cycle of appeals, bureaucracy and misinformation. All this on top of trying to get by on a day-to-day basis is pushing people and families to breaking point.

“The sector is pulling together to pick up the pieces and help to mitigate the terrible effects of these ill-conceived Westminster cuts which should never have happened in the first place.”

Nicola Sturgeon MSP, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, will address 200 charity representatives from across Scotland when they meet in Edinburgh today to make a stand against Westminster’s cuts and to work together to combat the chaos they are creating. In advance of the meeting, she pointed out that “The ink may only just be dry on the UK Welfare Reform Act 2012, but we must not stop making the case on behalf of some of Scotland’s most vulnerable people.

“Despite our opposition – and that of large parts of Scottish Society – the UK reforms are coming too fast and against the backdrop of some of the biggest cuts to the welfare system in a generation. It is voluntary organisations, local authorities and charities and that will be picking up the pieces. The Scottish Government – under the current constitutional settlement – will do all it can to mitigate the impact of these cuts and changes although there are consequences that are out-with the capability of the Scottish Government’s powers.”

by John Knox

We’ve heard a lot about Europe this week. Would an independent Scotland be accepted as a new member of the European Union and on what terms? Indeed, on what terms is the United Kingdom prepared to remain in the EU? These questions have spooked us more than any Halloween witches.

The debate has raged in Holyrood and at Westminster. David Cameron is going off to the annual scrum in Brussels over the EU budget with a Commons defeat behind him. Fifty three of his own Tory MPs rebelled against the government and called for a cut in the budget (£826b for the period 2014-20). Meanwhile in Edinburgh, Alex Salmond faced more criticism from all three opposition leaders over his claims that an independent Scotland would be welcomed with open arms into the EU while at the same time remaining in the Sterling zone.

Mr Salmond neatly side-stepped a debate in the Scottish Parliament over the legal advice he had, or had not, sought on the EU issue and instead went to a conference in Glasgow to declare that Scotland is fast becoming “the renewables power-house of Europe.” He announced that the target date for generating half our electricity from wind, wave and hydro-power was being brought forward from 2020 to 2015. And Highland Council joined in the euphoria by approving a huge hydro-electric storage scheme at Coire Glas, north of Fort William.

But the Westminster government would not let the independence issue go. It dispatched the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond to Faslane to warn Scotland that it could not just walk away from its commitment to NATO and the Trident nuclear deterrent. In fact he upped the ante and announced that he had allocated another £350m towards renewing the Trident submarine fleet and would base all the Royal Navy’s submarines at Faslane by 2022. He warned that over 8,000 jobs would then be at stake. The SNP and CND say only 520 of those jobs are linked to Trident missiles.

The fallout from all this independence-in-Europe debate even reached the editorial page of The Washington Post, which you would have thought would have more pressing issues on its mind…like the biggest storm ever to hit New York and a presidential election campaign. But it found time to declare: “An independent Scotland would significantly weaken the foremost military and political ally of the United States, while creating another European mini-state unable to contribute meaningfully to global security.” It says it’s part of a worrying trend of the fragmentation of Europe which may not stop at Scotland but go on to involve provinces like Flanders in Belgium, Venice in Italy and Catalonia in Spain (where there is an independence-inspired election later this month).

As if all this was not scary enough, I was visited by a gaggle of witches on a wet and dark Hallow’een. They screeched out a song of sorts and then asked for a “trick or treat”. It’s unusual these days to have any sort of entertainment, so I gave them a treat in the form of hard Sterling currency.

The Scottish Parliament was, at that very moment, passing a new law increasing the tax on haunted properties, or at least empty properties where witches and warlocks may be hiding. Business leaders said it was “a tax on distress” as the many empty premises in Scotland had enjoyed a 50 per cent rebate on their rates. That now goes down to just 10 per cent and councils will also have the power to increase rates on empty houses.

It’s enough to make many a witch or warlock blow up the houses of parliament, which is what one foolhardy Englishman tried to do on 5th November 1605. Indeed, I hear his efforts celebrated as I walk the streets around my house every evening this week. It’s another sign of the year moving on towards winter, like the leaves falling, the salmon returning to the rivers, the clocks going back and the dark evenings.

by John Knox

So, we have started on the road to the referendum. It’s going to be a long and winding road to the autumn of 2014. Not everyone wants to go on this journey – in fact the opinion polls suggest that most voters would prefer to make the most of devolution rather than chose between independence and the status quo.

But the SNP won a mandate for a referendum with their overwhelming victory in the Scottish general election in 2011. And on Monday, a bright, cool autumn day, Alex Salmond welcomed the Prime Minister to St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh and both men signed an agreement which gives the referendum legal force and binds each party to accepting the result.

There’s been much mushing over the details of the agreement in this week’s news media. Mr Salmond is reckoned to have won the point that the Westminster parliament should give the referendum protection from annoying legal challenges. In exchange he’s accepted David Cameron’s insistence that there should be just one question – independence yes or no, and no third option. The Scottish Parliament will decide everything else – the exact date, the wording of the question, whether 16 and 17 year olds will be allowed to vote and how much each campaign is allowed to spend.

As to the substance of the campaigns, Mr Cameron underlined the value of the union earlier on Monday morning by climbing onto the hull of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier being built at Rosyth. “We’re stronger and safer together,” he told the helmeted workforce. Mr Salmond visited a children’s nursery to suggest that independence would give Scotland a better future. Their lieutenants have been manning the TV and studios all week to begin the long argument.

The opinion pollsters are finding that around 30 per cent of Scots want independence, 30 per cent want to remain in the UK and the other 40 per cent are undecided. So the SNP’s annual conference in Perth this weekend has plenty of persuading to do.

The Liberal Democrats have been first off the mark with a substantive contribution to the “Vote No” campaign or, as they prefer to call it the “Better Together” campaign. They’ve published their latest paper on Home Rule ( the list of previous authors stretches back from David Steel to William Gladstone.) Sir Menzies Campbell’s version sees the Scottish Parliament being given responsibility for raising nearly two-thirds of its spending – from income tax, corporation tax, and eight other smaller taxes. But VAT, pensions, welfare, defence, foreign affairs and the currency would remain with the Westminster government under a new federal Act of Union. It also envisages a further devolution of powers from Holyrood to the existing local authorities and to new burgh councils.

It’s a mood point whether all this constitutional stuff will be the deciding factor in the referendum. People may chose instead to vent their anger over the economy if there is no sign of recovery by 2014. The GDP and unemployment figures released this week show Scotland lagging behind the rest of the UK. Growth was down to minus 0.4 per cent in the second quarter of the year. Unemployment has risen to 8.2 per cent in Scotland whereas in the UK as a whole, it has fallen to 7.9 per cent. And the 1700 workers at Hall’s meat processing plant in West Lothian learnt on Tuesday that they will be joining the unemployment queue over the next three months.

If there is a bright spot in the Scottish economy it’s in Aberdeen. Unemployment there is down to 2 per cent. The oil industry is entering a new phase with the larger firms passing on their fields and platforms to smaller, more specialised firms, encouraged by the Chancellor’s recent tax changes (or should that be u-turns). The city is also hoping to cash in on the off-shore wind industry.

And this week, it learned it was going to get its long-awaited by-pass. The new £400m road has been held up for three years by legal challenges but finally the UK Supreme Court has ruled that the objections are unfounded. The road won’t be completed, though, till 2018.

Overall, there hasn’t been much to be cheerful about this week. The weather has been dreich – apart from that bright Monday morning. School pupils on their half-term holiday, have been dragged through the shopping centres or have stood around on street corners, their hoods pulled over their heads. I noticed two little girls in multi-coloured raincoats carefully picking up fallen leaves on the grass outside my kitchen window and carrying them inside for an art project, no doubt being organised by a desperate parent.

Other children have been competing at the annual Gaelic music and arts festival, the National MOD, in Dunoon. The organisers say more young people are speaking fluent Gaelic than ever before, at least in recent times, and more pupils are sitting Gaelic exams.

This serious week was brought to a crushing conclusion with the realisation that Scotland is, in all probability, out of the World Cup. Our glorious team when down 2-nil to Belgium, leaving us bottom of our group. Now we have to decide whether to sack the manager, poor Craig Levein, or rebuild our football society from its foundations. Let’s have a referendum about that !

From John Knox

We are all Andy Murray fans now. Our tousled tyke has won the US Open and an Olympic gold medal at the end of a golden summer for British sport. And, by having lost out in the finals five times, the last time to Federer at Wimbeldon, he’s shown himself to be human and a tryer.

His home town of Dunblane has been whooping for joy and sending its young tennis stars out to the courts before school for the benefit of the world’s TV cameras. Dunblane was last heard of for its dreadful school shooting back in 1996 but here at last is a positive story about this pleasant dormitory town in the rolling farm lands of central Scotland.

Tennis is not a huge sport in our cold, wet, windy country. Andy had to go to Spain to perfect his game. So the fact that he is the first British player to win a grand slam tournament since the days of long-trousered Fred Perry in 1936, has surprised the Scots and puzzled the English. The First Minister Alex Salmond has called him a “sporting legend” and one enthusiastic Labour MSP has said the 25 year old should be honoured straight away with the title “Sir Andy Murray.”

Not all young Scots are so fortunate. We learnt this week that 24 per cent of them cannot find work. Overall unemployment rose for the first time for several months to 223,000, or 8.2 percent. That’s above the UK figure of 8.1 per cent – a trend that’s been going on for the past year. The trade unions have also pointed to the sharp increase in the number of people who have to settle for part time work because they cannot find full time employment – up 13,000 on a year ago.

The SNP government is blaming the Westminster government’s austerity programme. And this week the new infrastructure minister Nicola Sturgeon has been trying to do something about it. She’s announced a government guarantee scheme to persuade banks and building societies to grant mortgages of 95 per cent, rather than the usual 75 per cent. But it is only for first-time buyers and for new properties and one wonders why it has not been done before.

It is heartening to see that one of the chaps responsible for all this recession and austerity stuff has been named and shamed by the Financial Services Authority. Peter Cummings, the man who broke the Bank of Scotland, as part of HBOS, has been fined £500,000 and banned from banking for the rest of his life. He won’t be left too uncomfortable though, with a pension of £350,000 a year.

There’s been some outrage in the press too about the man who broke the other Scottish bank, RBS, Sir Fred Goodwin. He is still, apparently, a member of The Chartered Institute of Bankers and the Institute of Chartered Accountants. I wonder when the chaps sitting on the Chesterfields in these two clubs will get around to reviewing their membership lists.

As ever, there has been some murmurings about the SNP’s referendum on independence, due in the autumn of 2014. Nicola Sturgeon, as minister for independence as well as infrastructure, has been meeting Westminster’s man in Scotland Michael Moore, to discuss the final deal that will allow the referendum to go ahead. It looks like the Westminster government will make the referendum safe against any legal challenge in exchange for there being only one question – yes or no to independence.

The prominent Scottish businessman Jim McColl caused a stir when he announced he was going to vote yes to independence because his more favoured option, greater home rule, appeared to be no longer on the ballot paper.

This loss of political diversity was not however matched by the loss of bio-diversity this week with the news that a new species of plant life has been found in South Lanarkshire. The new “monkey flower” is thought to be a rare natural cross between two American invaders. Its discoverer, Dr Mario Vallejo-Marin a lecturer in evolutionary biology at Stirling University, says it could be the forerunner of many more new species as Scotland’s invading plants take hold.

A new word has also entered the official lexicon…“chuntering”. The Scottish Parliament’s presiding officer Tricia Marwick declared “there is too much chuntering going on” during First Minister’s question time. The definition: aimless background conversation or muttering, usually by young children or old men.

Lord Winston speaking in the House of Lords Picture: BBC Parliament

Sometimes we can get muddled between what is fair and what works. We put the principle of fairness ahead of the practicality of what works, and this is what is happening over House of Lords reform.

Democracy over everything is the cry – and, most of the time, that is a pretty solid basis on which to work, at least when considering the way we are governed.

But the House of Lords is not actually about government, not really anyway. The Lords is a revising chamber and, actually, it is a damn good one too.

It works and one of the reasons it works is precisely because it is not an elected chamber. There are many brilliant, thoughtful and non-partisan members of the House of Lords who would never dream of standing for election to an upper chamber but who feel privileged to serve in the Lords – and, for the most part, they do their job well.

The plans for Lords reform will politicise the second chamber to an extent that it has never been before.

Yes, there are many party peers there at the moment – but, largely, their party allegiances have faded over time because they don’t have to worry about career advancement or personal ambition. They have done all they are going to do in politics so they approach their job in a mature and generally impartial fashion.

They are impartial, not in a purely political sense (they could never throw off their political backgrounds completely), but from a legislative point of view and that is exactly what is required.

The House of Lords does not have primacy over our main elected chamber. If it keeps obstructing the progress of a Bill, it will eventually be overruled. All it can do is revise, change, amend and delay, and it does this well. It takes bad legislation and makes it better – which is exactly what you want with a second chamber. It can launch legislation but rarely does so and hardly ever with anything contentious.

The plans for Lords reform, however well-meaning in principle, will change completely the nature of our democracy because they will create a politically driven second chamber.

Inevitably, that will challenge the primacy of the Commons because the make-up of the second chamber will be different and it will be entirely political.

We will then be into an American style of politics where the elected leaders of the country often find themselves unable to get anything done because the upper house has a different political make-up.

Imagine how Tony Blair would have fared had he arrived in Downing Street with his massive majority in 1997 to find that the House of Lords was still dominated by the Tories and he had no hope of changing the make-up of the second chamber for several years? He could have – and probably would have – been thwarted on every move he tried to make, including devolution.

Yes, the hereditary principle makes no sense (but in truth most of those have gone now) and it may seem idiosyncratic to have bishops in the Lords too – but, somehow, it works. All these old heads, some from political backgrounds, some from the arts, from business, from the church, actually do what they are supposed to do – they consider and improve legislation.

Do we really want to replace them with a group of second-rate career politicians who are not good enough to get themselves elected to the Commons? Because that is what is going to happen.

The offer of a 15-year term in the second chamber at Westminster is going to attract all sorts of political has-beens and (to repeat Boris Johnson’s accurate phrase) never-wozzers.

We will get political time-servers who are only there for their own comfort and pomposity.

The irony is that, at a time when more and more people are bemoaning the lack of those with real experience of life outside politics in our democratic institutions, we want to create something which will encourage even more political careerists to come forward.

The House of Commons used to be home to all sorts of people who knew life, real life, outside politics. There were doctors and former soldiers, farmers, academics and former factory workers – people who not only knew something of life outside politics but who brought that to bear on their work in the chamber.

But, more than that, they knew that life – and their service to their constituents – was more important than obeying the party whip all the time. As a result, they were more independent and better MPs than many of the current breed who owe everything they have to the party machines.

Those public servants may have disappeared largely (there are one or two left, but not many) from the Commons and, indeed, from Holyrood, but they are still there in the Lords.

And yet what do we want to do? Get rid of them there too and replace them with more party apparatchiks and machine politicians.

The ultimate irony is, though, that this is being done in the name of democracy. What seems to be being missed is that it will diminish our democracy. We believe that everything democratic must be better than the alternative, every time. But sometimes, it isn’t.

Why do I think I know? Well, for several years I reported, on and off, on the House of Lords for the Press Association while working at Westminster. I spent more time in that chamber than most people outside their Lordships themselves.

When I wasn’t in the Lords I was in the Commons, so I know, to a limited extent, what goes on in both houses.

Sometimes the House of Lords was baffling, soporific and behind-the-times. Some peers drifted in and out of debates but, generally, the discussions were deep, analytical and – most important of all – almost entirely non-partisan. There were some brilliant minds there. The late Liberal peer Lord Russell (son of Bertrand Russell) made some of the most brilliant contributions I ever heard, in either House.

He would almost certainly have never stood for election to a second chamber nor, probably, would medical expert Lord Winston, arts champion Lord Bragg or London Olympics organiser Lord Coe – each of whom has brought their own invaluable experience to bear on debates and legislation.

Everyone knows that bumble-bees shouldn’t fly but somehow they do. The House of Lords is like that, in a way. It shouldn’t work because it is not democratic, it is full of party appointees and hereditaries – in short, it is unfair.

But it does work. It works very well and we are in danger of getting rid of something that works and replacing it with something which will change our political system forever – and not for the better – just because we believe democracy is the answer to everything.

The Lords is a revising chamber. It is not our prime legislative forum. So let it do its job because it is doing its job very well indeed.

Despite claims to the contrary, it really ain’t broke, so there is no need to fix it.

Houses of Parliament, London Picture: Brendan and Ruth McCartney

“Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?”

Is this question biased, leading and unfair? The Scottish Affairs Committee of the House of Commons certainly thinks so.

The committee published a report yesterday condemning this question (the Scottish government’s choice of question) and calling for a new, more balanced question to be put to the Scottish people in the referendum.

The Nationalists could point out – with some justification – that there appears to be a clear bias on the part of the committee. All the committee members who compiled the report come from Unionist parties.

The one SNP MP on the committee, Eilidh Whiteford, is boycotting the committee after her high-profile falling out with the Labour chairman, Ian Davidson.

But just because the committee is made up entirely of Unionists and even though it does appear to have gone out of its way to make a political point, that does not mean that its work can, or should, be ignored.

On the contrary, the work of the committee should be studied by everyone who has an interest in the referendum because it contains some really important evidence about questions and how we phrase them.

Forget about Mr Davidson’s over-the-top rhetoric when he published the report about Alex Salmond trying to both a player and the referee. Forget too about the blunt accusations of bias which the committee made yesterday and concentrate instead on the core evidence, hidden inside the report, which the committee compiled.

The committee commissioned a market research company to conduct a poll four times bigger than usual newspaper opinion polls. A total of 3,900 Scottish adults were consulted for what, in anyone’s terms, is a pretty good representative sample of Scottish opinion.

These voters were presented with three questions. The first was the SNP’s preferred option: “Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?”. A second option gave the respondents the chance to “disagree” as well as “agree”: “Do you agree or disagree that Scotland should become an independent country?”

But voters were also given a third option which gave equal weight to independence and the Union: “Should Scotland become an independent country or should it remain part of the United Kingdom?”

When the SNP’s chosen question was asked, support for independence was recorded at 41 per cent in favour and 59 per cent against. When voters were given the option of agreeing or disagreeing, support for independence went down to 39 per cent in favour and 61 per cent against.

Then, when the alternative option was offered in the third option, support for independence went down again, to 33 per cent, with 67 per cent against.

Everyone in politics knows that, if independence is up at about 41 per cent in the polls, the SNP has a decent chance of success, if only for reasons of turnout.

Those 41 per cent of Scots who want independence are much more likely to turn out and vote in the referendum for a change they want to effect than are the majority to defend the status quo.

So, if the SNP’s own question is asked, independence is clearly within reach – and don’t forget this is a comprehensive survey, much bigger than most polls done for news outlets.

At the heart of the dispute over the SNP’s question is the use of the word “agree” without any alternative proposition. That formulation is accepted as being biased and leading, so much so that the committee published an extract from a GCSE paper where students were asked to comment on the use of the word “agree” in a sample question and explain why it was biased.

If it is biased enough to be used as an example for schoolchildren, then it is clearly too biased to be used in the referendum, the committee members claimed.

And they have a point. Mr Salmond and his advisers may complain about the make-up of the committee and the political nature of its report, but they should not ignore the key conclusion that their chosen question is leading.

This is crucially important to the independence cause and the smarter Nationalists realise it. They know that if there is any dubiety over the fairness of the question and the result is close, then there will always be resentment and ill-feeling over the result and that is the one thing an independent Scotland does not need.

If Scotland is to become independent, then everyone has to have faith in the decision and the way it was made: that is imperative. If there are any Nationalists out there who still don’t see that, then they should turn this situation around.

How would they feel if the UK government proposed a referendum with the question: “Do you agree that Scotland should stay part of the United Kingdom?” Given the poll evidence, if that question was asked, independence would be lucky to secure 30 per cent support. And, if that question was asked, Nationalists everywhere would object – with good reason.

The Scottish Affairs Committee may be made up entirely of unionists, and party political ones at that. The SNP may object to the committee’s findings and the way it expressed them, but what they shouldn’t do is ignore the evidence.

This evidence represents the best analysis we have had to date into the question Mr Salmond wants to put before us – and, according to the polling evidence, a whole legion of experts and a quite pertinent GSCE paper, that question is biased and leading.

If the Nationalists are so convinced of their case, then let it be put to the people clearly, fairly and unambiguously. That means, at the very least, allowing voters to “disagree” as well as “agree” and possibly even to vote for an alternative scenario of staying in the Union, rather than just having to make a decision on independence.

And, in what has become a depressingly familiar refrain – this is too important to be mucked up with point-scoring and slyly taken advantages.

The referendum should be fair, open and transparent and as the Scottish Affairs Committee – for all its failings – has shown, the Scottish government’s choice of question just does not meet those principles.