VICTIMS of bullying at NHS Highland say they have lost trust in its 'healing process' after it emerged that senior managers are involved in agreeing their compensation payouts.

Former employees said they had been shocked at the sums offered in their settlements, which they have no option to appeal.

They also voiced concerns over apparent conflicts of interest in the process.

NHS Highland insists that the recommendations for compensation are reached independently. 

To date, 173 current and former staff members have gone through NHS Highland's healing process - which is still ongoing - and 42 have received their offers of financial compensation.

The process was set up in the wake of QC John Sturrock's independent review which found that many staff had suffered "serious harm and trauma" as a result of workplace intimidation and victimisation, in some cases leading them to quit or retire early.

The probe was ordered by Health Secretary Jeane Freeman after a group of clinician whistleblowers wrote to the Herald in September 2018 describing a "long-standing bullying culture" emanating "from the very top of the organisation".

Staff who had been adversely affected were invited to apply for resolution through the 'healing process', which provided them with the opportunity to share their experiences with an independent legal panel, receive counselling and a formal apology, and a financial settlement ranging from £500 to over £95,000 depending on the level of harm incurred.

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However, some of those who have brought cases say they were disappointed to learn that the Remuneration Committee, which signs off on settlements, includes senior managers at NHS Highland.

David Hughes, who left the health board after 17 years last December due to stress brought on by bullying and repeatedly mishandling of his complaints, told the website that his trust "was gone".

He said: “All the goodwill that the non-NHS side of the process had built up was jettisoned straight away because these are the very same people who were responsible or certainly played a significant part in my situation, and they were suddenly having the final say.”

Mr Hughes received an offer of £5,000, which he says fails to cover the debt he got into. The award could also affect his benefits.

In another case, dental therapist Pauline Thomson, who has already taken her former employer of 23 years to an employment tribunal and won her case for constructive dismissal, said the healing process had come “nowhere near” righting the wrongs she faced.

“It’s just a gratuity payment really in the hope that you will be happy with that and move on,” she said.

Now she plans to take the board to court for her loss of income.

Sandy Wilkie, a former HR manager at Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership, described his offer of £3000 compensation as "shocking".

He had been expecting upwards of £50,000.

Mr Wilkie previously told the Herald that his mental health had been harmed as a result of being undermined and overloaded in his job, and said plans to delete his role were drawn up within days of him being signed off sick with depression.

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The ordeal led to the breakdown of his marriage and he took redundancy in February this year, subsequently cashing in his pension early for income.

Mr Wilkie, 57, told that he fears victims of bullying will be "bitterly disappointed" by their final settlements.

He said: "I think that anyone who is about to go through the process or indeed has been through it should have deep concerns.

“I recently learnt that ex-members of the NHS Highland senior team are now participating as panel members and, from my own perspective, one of the perpetrators of my bullying named in my submission actually sits on the Remuneration Committee.

“There will be people out there who are vulnerable, who have suffered a lot and relying on compensation, who are waiting on some sort of closure either emotional or financial and I don’t see how this will provide that.”

The health board stresses that the recommendations for compensation sent to the committee are "heavily redacted to assure anonymity" and that to date none of the sums recommended by the independent healing process panel have been declined or amended.

NHS Highland had bowed to pressure to provide compensation as part of the healing process after initially saying it would be up to staff members to seek financial redress through employment tribunals.

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Dr Iain Kennedy, an Inverness GP who was one of the original four whistleblowers who exposed the bullying problem in Highland, told the Herald that settlements were there "to remove the stress of a legal process".

"I'm sure there are people that would never have gone down the route of an employment tribunal who are benefitting as a result of the healing process," he said.

Dr Kennedy added that he was aware of some concerns but that overall feedback was positive.

He said: "Individuals aren't ecstatic about what they've received, but there's a general contentedness. No one has shared with me any details of compensation. Perhaps figures are a little lower than were hoped for, but not so low that the people who've spoken to me are not able to move on.

"Some individuals have been upset by the delay in hearing an outcome. I think there was one individual who said they hadn't heard anything for 80 days, but what I'm hearing is that as the healing process progresses and the board get used to the process things are likely to move with a bit more pace.

"I've had a number of concerns expressed to me about conflicts of interest of people who are on the Remuneration Committee, some of whom are regarded by the victims of bullying as being complicit in the culture.

"However, we have had assurance that the Remuneration Committee is there for governance reasons and to make sure that processes are followed. We are confident that whatever the healing panel recommends will be followed through."

In a statement, NHS Highland said the Remuneration Committee "do not have details of who the recommendations relate to, and the recommendations are heavily redacted to assure anonymity".

The health board said there was no fixed budget to constrain payout sums, and that those receiving settlements would not be gagged with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

It said: "There is no ‘pot’, the framework sets out the compensation levels and the independent panel makes recommendations on the basis of what they hear and if approved by the committee, they will be approved and paid.

"There is no appeals mechanism, the process in itself is an innovative and unique solution to try and aid healing, over and above other options available to former and current colleagues who have experienced past harm.

"The financial recommendations have to be signed off by NHS Highland Chief Executive and the Remuneration Committee. This is public money, for which we are accountable, and there are strict rules and processes required, as you would expect.

"Those going through the Healing Process are not subject to non-disclosure agreements so can share this information publicly, should they choose to do so, however, NHS Highland cannot comment on the specifics of any current or former colleague or their situation."