CARE staff in Argyll and Bute are scared to speak out about bullying because they "fear the impact whistleblowing could have on their career", according to cross-party politicians who are calling for an inquiry.

In a letter to the regions's council and healthcare bosses, SNP MP for Argyll and Bute Brendan O'Hara said former council staff now employed by the health and social care partnership (HSCP) have "completely lost faith" that allegations of bullying and harassment will be properly investigated after "years of being ignored, not being believed or having their complaints swept under the carpet".

Mr O'Hara's letter, which calls for an independent review, has been co-signed by three Labour MSPs - Jackie Baillie, Rhoda Grant, and David Stewart - and Green MSP John Finnie.

It has also been signed by eight Argyll and Bute councillors - six SNP and two independents - alongside the NHS Highland branch secretaries for trade unions Unison and GMB Scotland.

It was sent on October 21 to Pippa Milne, chief executive of Argyll and Bute Council; Joanna MacDonald, chief officer Argyll & Bute HSCP; and Pam Dudek, chief executive NHS Highland.

READ MORE: Warning over 'grossly concerning' staff survey 

The letter states that the "very real concerns" of former council employees within Argyll and Bute's HSCP are "not being taken as seriously as those who are employed by NHS Highland".

It adds: "As elected representatives and trade union officials, barely a week passes when we are not contacted by current or former employees of the HSCP who are being bullied or who have been bullied in the past.

"We have been told repeatedly by those who have approached us that there are many more current HSCP employees who feel that they cannot come forward for fear of further bullying or the impact that whistleblowing may have on their future career.

"After years of being ignored, not being believed or having their complaints swept under the carpet, it is perfectly understandable that people have completely lost faith in the ability of the existing structures to adequately deal with and investigate allegations of bullying and harassment."

The letter goes on to call for an independent review, stating that the HSCP leadership "should have nothing to fear" if they are confident in their anti-bullying policies and practices.

In 2018, NHS Highland was plunged into crisis after the Herald reported claims by clinicians of a "culture of fear and intimidation" stemming from management at the health board.

The Scottish Government ordered an independent review led by John Sturrock QC, which concluded that "many hundreds" of staff had been the victims of inappropriate behaviour with many suffering "serious harm and trauma".

However, his May 2019 report - which was largely focused on the north Highland region - also recommended a separate probe into Argyll and Bute.

Mr Sturrock highlighted particular problems including intimidating behaviour by some senior managers, decisions taken without consultation that left staff “on the back foot and ill prepared”, as well as people living in small communities facing “victimisation, harassment, humiliation and rumour-spreading”.

READ MORE: Sturrock Review finds that staff in Highland suffered 'serious harm and trauma'

He added: “A specific review of management practices in Argyll and Bute is necessary and, because the nature of some of the allegations implicate management at a very senior level, consideration should be given to this being conducted by someone from outside the area who is viewed as wholly independent”.

No independent review has yet been carried out, but the findings of a survey of NHS staff within the Argyll and Bute HSCP carried out between February and April this year were described as "grossly concerning".

Of the 508 respondents, 68 per cent said they had experienced bullying and harassment, with 167 saying it had occurred in the six months prior to the survey being carried out.

However, the survey did not include non-NHS employees, such as social care staff, who make up a third of the HSCP workforce.

Douglas Philand, a former NHS mental health nurse and independent councillor for mid-Argyll who is among the signatories of Mr O'Hara's letter, said he was "absolutely delighted" in the level of political support for a review.

READ MORE: Sturrock report highlights inappropriate use of suspensions

Mr Philand said he has been contacted about bullying in the past couple of months by around 16 current and former staff members.

"I would say 50% of them are retired, but 50% are people who are still working, who feel that nothing has changed and nothing will change," said Mr Philand.

"They don't have confidence in the system because it's really the same people who are doing the investigating who need to be investigated.

"There's a lack of faith."

Mr Philand added that surveying NHS members of staff "only told half the story".

"There are so many council staff in there - you could be managed by council staff.

"I know some of the stories and it's hair curling. People being depressed and off on long-term sick as a result.

"When we're supposedly an integrated joint board and you're only asking one half of the organisation what's going on, how on earth can you promote joint integration?"

A spokesman for Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership said: "The health and wellbeing of our staff is a priority for the organisation.

"We acknowledge receipt of the letter from Brendan O'Hara MP and will be responding in due course."