ONE of the keys to a civilised, modern democracy is independent regulation. This means that those whose operations could harm human health or the environment are subject to inspection and oversight by public agencies that act without fear or favour.

Regulators have to be completely separated from the businesses they are responsible for. They must ensure that they are not unduly influenced by industry or governments and should be manifestly and transparently their own masters.

Watchdogs that become lapdogs are worse than useless – they are dangerous. Weaknesses in the Japanese nuclear regulatory regime are now seen as partly to blame for the widespread damage caused by the Fukushima reactor disaster in 2011.

That is why our report today revealing how the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) was put under pressure by the Scottish Government over a planned pesticide ban is important. And why the Scottish Government’s response is concerning.

The pesticide, Slice, is seen as essential for killing the lice that can eat farmed salmon alive. But a scientific study has suggested it could also be wiping out wildlife in sea lochs.

In the circumstances Sepa did what any good regulator would do, propose a ban. But this provoked an angry reaction from fish farmers, who complained to the Scottish Government.

There then followed an unedifying email exchange between officials in which Sepa was persuaded to “nuance” a ministerial policy briefing to remove a two-year deadline for a ban, seen as a “ticking bomb” by the industry.

However you look at it, this does not look good. Under pressure from Government officials, Sepa watered down its plan to protect the environment. Instead it is now going ahead with more limited restrictions.

The Scottish Government insists that it has not imposed a view on Sepa, which makes up its own mind. Sepa says it has to talk to stakeholders and its regulation is “science-based”.

Campaigners volubly disagree and others can read the emails that have been released and make up their own minds.

What we think is now important is that the aquaculture inquiry promised for early next year by Holyrood’s rural economy and environment committees takes a serious look at what happened with Slice.

MSPs should closely question those involved and decide whether industry and the Scottish Government have behaved properly. And whether Sepa is actually an independent watchdog.