Police ‘made sexist error when giving details about Nicola Bulley’s struggles’

Police officers walk past a missing person appeal poster for Nicola Bulley tied to a bridge over the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire Credit: PA Images

Police made a “sexist” error when they released information about missing Nicola Bulley’s struggles with alcohol and the menopause, the former victims’ commissioner has said.

Dame Vera Baird said she believed Lancashire Constabulary had made a “dreadful error” in disclosing the missing mother-of-two’s vulnerabilities.

She also said she is worried it will stop people making complaints in the future and wondered if such details would have been released if she was a man.

The Information Commissioner has said he will be asking Lancashire Police about its decision to disclose Ms Bulley’s struggles with alcohol and HRT.

John Edwards said in a statement: “Data protection law exists to ensure people’s personal information is used properly and fairly.

"This includes ensuring personal details are not disclosed inappropriately.

“Police can disclose information to protect the public and investigate crime, but they would need to be able to demonstrate such disclosure was necessary.

“We recognise that at this stage of an intensive, live investigation, the force must focus all their energies on the inquiry.

“But given the high-profile nature of this case, we will be asking Lancashire Police to set out how they reached the decision to disclose this information in due course.”

Home Secretary Suella Braverman demanded an “explanation” from the force about why it disclosed those details at a press conference on Wednesday, a source revealed.

A source close to the Home Secretary says she received an explanation from police after becoming “concerned” with how the issue was being handled.

The force also came under fire from the leader of Wyre Council, who said it has “lessons to be learned”.

Mortgage adviser Ms Bulley vanished while walking her springer spaniel Willow in the village of St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, on 27 January after dropping her two daughters at school.

She has not been seen for three weeks.

Lancashire Police have come under heavy criticism for revealing the details about her “vulnerabilities” in the weeks before her disappearance that they say made her “high risk”.

Nicola Bulley, 45, was last seen on the morning of Friday January 27 Credit: family handout/Lancashire Police/PA

They later added in a statement that she had been struggling with alcohol issues and the menopause, and had stopped taking HRT medication.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said it was assessing the information to determine whether an investigation would be necessary over the contact officers had with Ms Bulley on 10 January.

The referral comes after her family called for an end to the “speculation and rumours” about her private life.

The Home Office also said it was receiving regular updates from the force about its handling of the case – including “why personal details about Nicola were briefed out at this stage of the investigation”.

Dame Vera told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m afraid this is the biggest error that I have seen for quite a long time. It’s going to just, you know, very sadly, to undermine trust in the police yet further.

“I’m sure they would have explained themselves if they had an explanation… if it was relevant, it needed to be in a public domain at the start and it wasn’t. I mean, that is a really worrying error. It is frankly dreadful.

“I’m worried about future people making complaints.

“If one of your relatives has gone missing… and may have some weaknesses, as goodness knows we all do, then would you, first of all, go to the police at all as early as you should when you will have to tell them all the intimate details to help them with their inquiry – that’s essential.

Nicola Bulley, 45, was last seen on the morning of January 27 Credit: Family handout/PA

“But would you if it’s going to be on the front page of The Sun the next day or a week later? And if you do, will you tell them these details?”

Asked if it was an error that would have been made if the potential victim was a man, she said: “I do not think that it would.

“Would we have had police officers saying, you know, if it was Nicholas, he’s been unfortunately tied down with alcohol because he’s been suffering from erectile dysfunction for the last few weeks?

“I think not. You can hear all the senior police officers squirming as I say it, I would have thought.

“It is a dreadful error to put this in the public domain for absolutely nothing and I’m afraid I think it’s as sexist as it comes.”

Wyre Council leader Michael Vincent told Granada Reports: “With the benefit of hindsight, there are lessons to be learned, but the police face an impossible task to get the balance right here and I think they’ve done their best in difficult circumstances.”

Talking about the information on Ms Bulley revealed by police, Mr Vincent said that the wider context should be considered: ''I think if you look exclusively at Nicola, perhaps it wasn't right to release the information, but there is a wider context that the police have to look at.''

''They are the ones who are dealing with Nicola's family on a daily basis and they see the damage that speculation causes to them, so they had to strike a balance between those two things.

''If they believe they struck the right balance, then I think it's right that there is an investigation into that, to see whether that was correct. ''

''But the focus right now shouldn't be on lesson learning after the event, it should be on finding Nicola.''

The River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire Credit: Peter Powell/PA

He also revealed people in the village where she vanished have employed an external security company because of interest in the case, with local people complaning that they feel unsafe in their homes.

Mr Vincent added: “We've had complaints from residents about people trying their doors, peering through windows, none of that is acceptable.''

“These are typically older people extremely scared in their own homes.

“The residents have had to employ an external security company, that’s just not acceptable.”

''I would ask people not to come to St Michaels this weekend.''

''The last two weekends have been extremely busy here and that does not allow the people who live here and the children who know Nicola's children to get back to something like a normal life.''

''That's what we want for the people of St Michael's.''

The decision by Lancashire Police to reveal details of Ms Bulley’s “vulnerabilities” had earlier been criticised by MPs and campaign groups.

The Conservative police and crime commissioner for Lancashire, Andrew Snowden, said the force was being “as transparent as they can be” following the press conference.

On February 3, the force told the public of its main hypothesis that Ms Bulley had fallen into the River Wyre in a “10-minute window” between 9.10am and 9.20am on the day she disappeared.

The search for her has since been extended to the sea but she has not been found.