A TOP QC will be appointed before Christmas to lead the investigation into claims of a widespread "bullying culture" at NHS Highland.

In a major victory for campaigners, the Scottish Government has bowed to pressure to ensure that the independent external investigation into the scandal will be overseen by a senior lawyer.

The chosen QC is expected to be named within the next two weeks.

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It follows a meeting today between Shirley Rogers, NHS Scotland’s health workforce and strategic change director, and trade unions including the GMB and Unison.

Campaigners have been adamant that the probe must be led by someone outwith the health service to avoid the risk of the NHS "marking its own homework".

The health board has been under fire since four doctors - who also act as staff representatives - wrote to the Herald in September accusing the senior leadership of presiding over a "culture of fear and intimidation" for the past decade.

They said the "practice of suppressing criticism" had had an adverse effect on both staff and patients, but that they had felt compelled to go public as "more and more clinicians share with us their concerns on the impact this culture has had on them".

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Since the row erupted a number of former staff members and non-executive directors have also come forward to back calls for an independent inquiry, with some saying that the bullying had driven them to resign.

Doctors claimed they had seen patients harmed as a result of targets and staff pressures, while ex-board members also complained that they had felt frustrated over a lack of transparency or reluctance to deal with bullying problems.

Dr Iain Kennedy, an Inverness GP and medical secretary of the Highland Local Medical Committee, who was one of the four signatories on the original letter to the Herald, said he was delighted that the allegations would be subject to QC scrutiny.

He said: "It's exactly what we requested, and we are pleased to hear that it will be starting before Christmas.

"It is further confirmation that we were absolutely right to blow the whistle. We have heard so many stories over the years, so we are in absolutely no doubt that there needs to be an inquiry."

Dr Kennedy said the inquiry must protect staff members who had been paid off after raising grievances in the past, as well examining why issues were not raised sooner.

He said: "We will be seeking an assurance that no victim will suffer any detriment should they come forward and give evidence, and that would include those with any non-disclosure agreements - otherwise known as 'settlement payments', or 'non-salaried payments'.

"We're aware that that many workers in NHS Highland have had these payments over the years but they've not been recorded in such a way that they can be identified as due to people who have gone down grievance procedures or who have claimed bullying.

"We think there are a lot of victims that have had payments over the years, and some of these victims have already approached us saying that they need absolute assurance that their anonymity with be protected and they won't suffer retribution.

"We also want the investigation to look into the role of the trade unions during past the past decade because how can it be that there can be so many victims and yet none of the unions spoke up, except the GMB, so why is that?

"A lot of people tell us that they believe the unions have been complicit, so we need to look into that to stop it from happening again."

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NHS Highland's leaders have repeatedly stressed that they do not believe there is a systemic problem with bullying, but that they welcome an independent inquiry.

Adam Palmer, NHS Highland’s employee director and Unison representative, said QC-led external review "is the appropriate way forward".

He added: "The board understands that there is to be a separate statement issued regarding the appointment of the QC in the very near future.

"And NHS Highland welcomes that there will be independent HR support provided for the investigation of individual cases that have come to light since the issue was first raised.

"The results of the meeting and any further updates will be shared at next week’s board meeting."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Health Secretary has commissioned an externally led independent review into the allegations of bullying at NHS Highland.

“This review will consider all the circumstances that have led to the allegations and make recommendations, and today’s frank, productive and constructive discussion with staff representatives of NHS Highland will help us finalise the scope for the independent review.

“We will announce who will lead the independent investigation as soon as possible.”