Home Secretary is ‘concerned’ over Nicola Bulley police response as force refers itself to IOPC
Detectives handling the chaotic investigation into Nicola Bulley’s disappearance have been ordered by the Home Secretary to explain why they publicised her battles with alcohol and the menopause.
Suella Braverman has pressured Lancashire Constabulary for answers after having grown ‘concerned’ by the force’s decision to release highly personal information about the 45-year-old mother-of-two.
The force sparked a backlash after divulging Ms Bulley’s personal information, prompting women’s campaigners to accuse officers of trying to hide their ‘incompetence’ in the now three-weeklong probe.
An ex-detective called the force’s statement ‘astounding’ and a former missing persons expert at Scotland Yard said the failure by police to state earlier why they thought Ms Bulley had drowned had created an ‘unnecessary circus’.
Lancashire Police have also referred themselves to the police watchdog over contact they had with Ms Bulley just weeks prior to her disappearance.
Lancashire Police has sparked anger and grief after detectives revealed that mother-of-two Nicola Bulley, 45, (pictured with her partner Paul) had been struggling with alcohol issues brought on by ongoing struggles with menopause
Lancashire Police have referred themselves to the police watchdog over contact the force had with missing mother Nicola Bulley prior to her disappearance. Pictured: Assistant Chief Constable Peter Lawson (left) and Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith of Lancashire Police during a press conference on Wednesday
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said they were assessing the information to determine whether an investigation would be necessary over the contact officers had with the missing mother-of-two on January 10. Pictured: Officers in St Michael’s on Wyre on Thursday
The Home Office said Mrs Braverman had demanded regular updates about the police handling of the case.
A source close to the Home Secretary said: ‘She was concerned by the disclosure of Nicola Bulley’s personal information by Lancashire police and asked the force for an explanation, which came yesterday evening.’
The force is understood to have told the Home Office that it had acted to quash wild rumours. But government insiders said ministers were still not ‘wholly satisfied’.
The mounting storm of criticism came after a testy press conference on Wednesday when the senior officer investigating Ms Bulley’s disappearance was repeatedly quizzed about why unspecified ‘vulnerabilities’ had seen her classified as a ‘high risk’ missing person.
Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith said colleagues had been made aware of the issues but refused to spell out why they were relevant to the case.
Hours later the force issued a sensational statement revealing the personal crisis Ms Bulley had been going through.
It added that ‘these struggles had resurfaced’ and had caused ‘real challenges’ for the family. Officers and health professionals were called to a ‘concern for welfare’ at the family home 17 days before her disappearance.
Nicola Bulley and her partner Paul Ansell were planning on getting married in the near future
Ms Bulley’s parents and sister spoke at an appeal a number of weeks ago to try and find her
Police officers are seen searching the Wyre river bank at Wardley Yacht Marina on Thursday
The announcement sparked criticism, with friends on Thursday branding the force ‘out of order’ and pleading on social media for people ‘to be kind’.
Lancashire police then later released a further statement from her family calling for an end to the ‘cruel’ and ‘appalling’ speculation over her personal life.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said the actions were ‘very unusual’ and she had also written to Lancashire Constabulary to demand an explanation.
The criticism prompted the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) to ask the force to consider referring itself over the high-profile criticism of its handling of the case.
In response the force instead referred itself over the contact it had with Ms Bulley on January 10, when it was called to the family home.
‘This afternoon we received a referral from Lancashire Constabulary regarding contact the force had with Nicola Bulley on January 10, prior to her disappearance,’ the IOPC said on Thursday.
‘We are assessing the available information to determine whether an investigation into that contact may be required and if so, who should conduct that investigation.’
The force said this referral did ‘not relate to the wider missing from home investigation’.
The Conservative police and crime commissioner for Lancashire, Andrew Snowden, also said the force was being ‘as transparent as they can be’ following the press conference.
The bench where Nicola’s mobile phone was last seen when she vanished on January 27
A police officer walks past a missing person appeal poster for Nicola Bulley and yellow ribbons and messages of hope tied to a bridge over the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre
A candle is lit in front of a photo of Nicola Bulley (left) and her partner Paul Ansell (right) on an altar at St Michael’s Church in St Michael’s on Wyre on Thursday
Nicola Bulley’s family statement
‘It has now been three weeks since Nikki went missing. We, as a family, believe that the public focus has become distracted from finding Nikki, and more about speculation and rumours into her and Paul’s private life.
‘As a family, we were aware beforehand that Lancashire Police, last night, released a statement with some personal details about our Nikki.
‘Although we know that Nikki would not have wanted this, there are people out there speculating and threatening to sell stories about her. This is appalling and needs to stop.
‘The police know the truth about Nikki and now the public need to focus on finding her.
‘Due to the peri menopause Nikki suffered with significant side effects such as brain fog, restless sleep and was taking HRT to help but this was giving her intense headaches which caused Nikki to stop taking the HRT thinking that may have helped her but only ended up causing this crisis.
‘The public focus has to be on finding her and not making up wild theories about her personal life.
‘Despite what some media outlets and individuals are suggesting, we are being updated daily and receive support from our family liaison officers.
‘Nikki is such a wonderful daughter, sister , partner and mother and is missed dearly – we all need you back in our lives.
‘Nikki, we hope you are reading this and know that we love you so much and your girls want a cuddle. We all need you home. You can reach out to us, or you can contact MissingPeople.org.uk. Don’t be scared, we all love you so very much.’
Former home secretary Priti Patel said on Thursday night that the decision to divulge such personal information raised ‘some very, very serious questions’.
‘It is wholly inappropriate and too judgmental for them to have made the type of personal statements they have about Nicola,’ she said.
Jamie Klingler of Reclaim These Streets, which clashed with the Met Police following the murder of Sarah Everard by serving officer Wayne Couzens, accused the force of using Ms Bulley ‘as a shield to protect their own incompetence’.
Branding officers ‘cruel’, she added: ‘This is not how to treat a missing woman.’
Zoë Billingham, who spent 12 years as HM Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue, told the BBC the update ‘smacked either of panic or perhaps even a deliberate decision on the part of the force to think how they can maintain their reputation’.
Mick Neville, the former missing person’s expert at Scotland Yard, said: ‘At the start they said she was completely ordinary – they’ve told a lie. It is bad management of publicity, there has been this covering up, things they have not disclosed, that has caused all this. The police have created an unnecessary circus by not being forthright from the start.’
And Martyn Underhill, a former detective and police and crime commissioner, said the ‘astounding’ level of personal detail revealed by officers risked distracting from ‘the key issue which is where is Nicola?’ He said taking the decision almost three weeks after her disappearance had the effect of ‘destroying Nicola’s reputation’.
Ms Bulley was last seen on January 27 while walking her dog by the river in St Michael’s on Wyre after dropping her daughters – aged six and nine – at school. Her phone was left on a bench.
Police continue to stress their ‘working hypothesis’ remains that the mortgage adviser fell into the River Wyre and say there is ‘no evidence whatsoever’ to suggest she was the victim of foul play.
However detectives are still hunting for any evidence that she left the location on foot, while the mouth of the river and Morecambe Bay continues to be searched.
The IOPC referral came as Ms Bulley’s family pleaded with people to stop making up ‘wild theories about her personal life’ and instead focus on ‘finding’ her.
More officers seen by the river on Thursday as they search for missing Ms Bulley
Assistant Chief Constable Peter Lawson (left) and Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith of Lancashire Police updates the media on Wednesday
In a statement released through Lancashire Constabulary, the 45-year-old’s family chose to share more detail of her fight with the menopause and their fears that her decision to suddenly stop taking HRT may have ‘ended up causing this crisis.’
The family said that Ms Bulley ‘would not have wanted this’ and said they were ‘aware’ it was going out – though stopped short of saying they approved of it.
‘We, as a family, believe that the public focus has become distracted from finding Nikki, and more about speculation and rumours into her and Paul’s private life.
‘As a family, we were aware beforehand that Lancashire Police, last night, released a statement with some personal details about our Nikki.
‘Although we know that Nikki would not have wanted this, there are people out there speculating and threatening to sell stories about her. This is appalling and needs to stop.’
It continued: ‘The public focus has to be on finding her and not making up wild theories about her personal life.
‘Despite what some media outlets and individuals are suggesting, we are being updated daily and receive support from our family liaison officers.’
Concluding their statement, the family issued a direct plea for Ms Bulley to return, saying: ‘Your girls want a cuddle.’
The statement read: ‘Nikki is such a wonderful daughter, sister, partner and mother and is missed dearly – we all need you back in our lives.
‘Nikki, we hope you are reading this and know that we love you so much and your girls want a cuddle. We all need you home.
‘You can reach out to us, or you can contact MissingPeople.org.uk. Don’t be scared, we all love you so very much.’
Ms Bulley’s parents, Ernest, 73, and Dot Bulley, 72, left a yellow ribbon tied to the bridge over the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, where their daughter vanished on January 27.
Among other ribbons left by friends and well-wishers, the message from Ms Bulley’s parents read: ‘We pray every day for you. Love you, Mum + Dad XXX.’
A second ribbon, believed to be from Ms Bulley’s sister, Louise Cunningham, read: ‘Nikki please come home. I love you. Lou XXX’.
Mark Williams-Thomas at the bench where Nicola Bulley was last seen three weeks ago
Lancashire Police said that Nicola was immediately graded as ‘high-risk’ due to ‘specific vulnerabilities’
Since Ms Bulley vanished, huge public and media interest has resulted in what police described as ‘false information, accusations and rumours’ and an ‘unprecedented’ search of both the River Wyre, downstream to Morecambe Bay and miles of neighbouring farmland
During a briefing on Wednesday, police explained Ms Bulley was immediately classified as high risk when she was reported missing due to her ‘vulnerabilities’.
Lancashire police disclosed that the mortgage adviser suffered ‘significant issues with alcohol brought on by ongoing struggles with menopause’.
Police initially said she had ‘vulnerabilities’, but hours later shared more details, explaining they felt it was ‘important to clarify’.
The decision to publicly share personal information about the mother-of-two has been called ‘deeply troubling’ by MPs and campaigners.
Police experts have also questioned why officers had not shared the fact Ms Bulley was deemed high risk and vulnerable from day one, something potentially relevant to the search.
Two people are arrested for sending local councillors ‘malicious’ messages about Nicola Bulley search
Two people have been arrested on suspicion of sending malicious communications over the disappearance of Nicola Bulley.
Lancashire Police said it received reports over the weekend of messages being sent to Wyre Council members.
A 49-year-old man from Manchester and a 20-year-old woman from Oldham have been arrested on suspicion of malicious communications offences.
A 49-year-old man from Manchester and a 20-year-old woman from Oldham were arrested on Tuesday for messages sent to Wyre Council (pictured) members over the weekend, Lancashire Police have confirmed
The man has been bailed pending further inquiries until May 12 while the woman remains in custody.
On Monday, Wyre Council removed councillors’ contact details from its website due to ‘inappropriate emails and phone calls’ about Ms Bulley’s disappearance.
It said it had temporarily removed contact details for ‘parish and town council members’ after Lancashire Police confirmed its investigation.
It was completely at odds with a press conference held by Supt Sally Riley on February 3.
There the officer was directly asked if there were any other factors with Ms Bulley – such as depression, medication or underlying conditions – which may have contributed to her going missing.
Supt Riley had responded: ‘We have clearly considered the whole picture but this is not relevant at this time.’
Questions as to why the constabulary had not been ‘forthright from the start’ and suppressed the fact the beloved mother-of-two was vulnerable were raised on Thursday.
In missing person cases it is extremely common for people to be described this way if it is relevant to the case.
Experts and former officers expressed disbelief at Lancashire’s failure to do this and said the omission had fed a three-week mystery that saw the force at one point have to issue a dispersal notice to deter TikTokers and amateur sleuths.
Former undercover Met detective Peter Bleksley – who is also known for his appearances on Hunted – also lambasted Lancashire Police.
He said: ‘The naivety on behalf of the police has been absolutely staggering. They’ve tried to manage the situation and they’ve got it wrong at virtually at each and every turn.
‘If the public can’t trust what the police are telling us, and they have no trust in their media strategy, it’s quite natural for some people to perhaps not trust their investigation.’
In a scathing attack, Mark Williams-Thomas said Lancashire Police’s media strategy is ‘totally wrong’ in the probe into the mortgage adviser’s disappearance while out walking her dog three weeks ago.
Mr Williams-Thomas, who exposed the crimes of Jimmy Savile and investigated the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, criticised their decision to initially withhold details of the missing mother’s vulnerable state which seriously hampered the search.
He claimed the force then left her family in turmoil by revealing information about her ‘alcohol issues’ after interest in the case had been allowed to mushroom.
Speaking on the riverbank in St Michaels on Wyre, close to where Ms Bulley, 45, was last seen on January 27, Mr Williams-Thomas told MailOnline on Thursday: ‘They [Lancashire Police] got their media strategy totally wrong.
‘The family are now in turmoil. The last 24 hours have been horrific because the police decided yesterday to release that she was a high-risk missing person. Their performance yesterday was shocking.’
The ex-detective went on: ‘Not only in the fact that [they said] she was a high-risk missing person in the press conference and then refused to explain what that was about.
‘How did they think that they could release a piece of information like that and journalists and investigators weren’t going to say, what are you talking about?’
Paul Ansell (right), the distraught partner of missing dog walker Nicola Bulley (left), is growing ‘frustrated’ with police over their stalling investigation, it was revealed on Tuesday
Ms Bulley’s long-term partner Paul Ansell sat down for a TV interview with Channel 5’s Dan Walker
Police officers near the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, as police continue their search on Thursday
Peter Faulding (centre, pictured searching for Nicola on February 8) said it is ‘absolutely outrageous’ the information was withheld from him, as it would have changed how he searched the stretch of the River Wyre in the village of St Michael’s
Mr Williams-Thomas, a former Surrey Police detective, said Lancashire Police only revealed details of Nicola’s vulnerability after he told them he had information about police having being called to her home just weeks before she went missing.
He said: ‘They have acknowledged they’ve made major failings. And I know that because I’ve spoken to them in the police press department and they acknowledge that.’
‘When I spoke to the police early yesterday before lunch and I said to them: “Listen, I have information that something has gone on in the family… there have been emergency services called at the address, what are you going to do about it? Can you please confirm if that’s true or not?”
‘And as a result of that, they then in the early evening released information that there have been issues in Nicola’s life.’
He went on: ‘What they should have done is done it on day one – get rid of all the speculation, dealt with it, and have had a very clear strategy.
‘Nicola has issues in her life – we all have issues in our lives – but that doesn’t mean she’s any less vulnerable than anyone else in terms of [being abducted by] third parties.’
Similarly, the forensic diving expert who helped look for Ms Bulley said his approach would have been completely different if officers had shared their intelligence with him when his team searched the River Wyre.
Peter Faulding’s Specialist Group International were called in by Ms Bulley’s family after she had been missing for more than a week.
They spent three days searching the river before declaring the case a ‘complete mystery’.
He now says he would have searched further down the river had he been told she was a ‘high risk’ individual with ‘significant alcohol issues’ and had been ‘struggling’.
He told Sky News on Thursday night the case baffled him because if Ms Bulley had fallen in where her phone and dog harness were found she would have landed in just two feet of water ‘on rocks, she would not have drowned’.
In a further interview, with GB News, he said that if he had known Ms Bulley was classed as ‘high risk’ due to her state of mind his thinking would have been different.
He said: ‘If somebody intends to take their own life, and I deal with a number of suicides each year for the police, they tend to jump in and may swim and float before they manage to drown themselves.
‘It’s very grim and we look for things like whisky bottles, because most people have a drop, some pills, and they go with it and they tend to drift down.’
Mr Faulding previously said the mother could not be in the river, after conducting a search under the premise she had slipped in. But he now believes she could be much further downstream if she intended to take her own life.
Mr Faulding told TalkTV that: ‘If she had jumped in, intended to take her own life or walk off, that would change my whole plan. She could have ended up in the sea.’
And he told The Times: ‘I find it absolutely outrageous this was not shared with me. It’s disgraceful and someone needs to take responsibility for this.’
Nicola Bulley, 45, from Inskip, Lancashire, was last seen on the morning of Friday January 27, when she was spotted walking her dog on a footpath by the River Wyre off Garstang Road in St Michael’s on Wrye
Police drone searchs the Wyre river bank at Wardley Yacht Marina on Thursday
Police officers search the Wyre river bank at Wardley Yacht Marina on Thursday
An aerial view of Blackpool Lane in St Michaels on Wyre, which was not covered by CCTV on the day that Nicola Bulley went missing, on February 15
The mortgage adviser had been struggling with menopause when she disappeared.
Experts say women go through the menopause at the age of 51 years on average, although it can begin when someone is anywhere between 40 and 58 years old.
During this period the body goes through major hormonal changes, as the ovaries stop making estrogen and progesterone.
In the early stages this triggers hot flushes, night sweats and mood swings among other symptoms.
Reacting to the police announcement, Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, said: ‘The decision to disclose this level of detail on a missing person’s private life, with no evidence that this is assisting in finding her, is deeply troubling.
‘The police need to be much clearer as to why any of this helps find Nicola Bulley or support this investigation.’
Silkie Carlo, of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said the decision to broadcast Ms Bulley’s health issues and hormone status was ‘serious invasion of her privacy with no obvious benefits for the investigation’.
Weeks after the mystery disappearance, police continue to focus almost exclusively on the theory that Ms Bulley fell into the river at St Michael’s on Wyre
RNLI boat our on the river Wyre Estuary at Knott End on Thursday as part of the Nicola Bulley missing person search, now in its third week
Police officers walk along a footpath in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, on Sunday as they continue their search for missing woman Nicola Bulley
Pictured: The bench where Nicola Bulley’s phone was found, on the banks of the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre
‘No evidence to indicate a criminal aspect or third party involvement’ in Nicola Bulley’s disappearance, Lancashire Police Assistant Chief Constable Peter Lawson said to a press conference on Wednesday morning
Many social media users felt the decision highlighted the police’s treatment of women – which has recently been under scrutiny following high-profile cases involving former officers such as Wayne Couzens and David Carrick.
Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, asked how the police will justify their decision if the mother is found alive.
He tweeted: ‘If, as we all hope, Nicola Bulley is found alive how will the police justify a breach of her confidentiality to, what looks like, manage their own reputation?’
Alicia Kearns, Conservative MP for Rutland, tweeted: ‘I am deeply uncomfortable with the police releasing Nicola Bulley’s so-called ‘vulnerabilities’ on menopause & alcohol.
‘I struggle to ascertain how this will assist Police in their search & investigations.
‘I do see how it would assist those wishing to victim-blame or diminish.’
Nearly three weeks have passed since Ms Bulley vanished, but a search expert advising the police told the newspaper that it can take up to 100 days to find a body in a river.
The expert, who was not named, said in some cases the body is never found.
On the day Ms Bulley went missing, the river was flowing at a rate of 3.8 cubic metres per second – enough to carry her over the weir and off downstream, according to the expert.
In the highly-detailed public briefing from Lancashire Police, the force said it had an open mind but that there was no evidence anyone was involved.
It remains the the police’s ‘working hypothesis’ that Nicola fell into the river while taking her dog, though they were following a number of lines of inquiry.
Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith of Lancashire Police gives a press conference at Lancashire Police HQ on February 15
Charlotte Drake, a next-door neighbour and friend of Ms Bulley, ties a ribbon with a message of hope written on it, to a bridge over the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre on Tuesday
A yellow ribbon, with a message from Nicola Bulley’s parents written on it, is tied to a bridge over the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre on Thursday
Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith said: ‘As soon as she was reported missing, following the information that was provided to the police by her partner Paul, and based on a number of specific vulnerabilities that we were made aware of, Nicola was graded as high-risk.
‘That is normal in a missing person investigation with the information we were in possession of. As any senior investigating officer does, you form a number of hypotheses – that is scenarios which are possible from the information to hand.’
On Wednesday, Lancashire Police’s Assistant Chief Constable Peter Lawson said the force had undertaken an ‘unprecedented amount of work’ in searching for Nicola.
He said this had included visiting more than 300 premises, speaking to almost 300 people and receiving roughly 1,500 pieces of information.
Senior investigating officer Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith said at the time: ‘Those vulnerabilities based our decision-making in terms of grading Nicola as high risk and have continued to form part of my investigation throughout.’
From HRT side effects to the symptoms that affect nearly nine in 10 women, our essential Q&A reveals how menopause can have a devastating effect
Revelations that Nicola Bulley was battling alcohol issues following an early menopause has thrown a fresh spotlight on the effects of the condition:
What is the menopause?
Menopause occurs when your periods stop permanently, marked by the point when a woman hasn’t had one for 12 months in a row.
It usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55, with 51 being the UK average.
It is a normal part of ageing and occurs because the ovaries stop producing eggs. As a result, levels of the hormones the ovaries produce drop.
Revelations that Nicola Bulley was battling alcohol issues following an early menopause has thrown a fresh spotlight on the effects of the condition (file image)
Potential side effects of HRT?
HRT replaces the hormones that a woman’s body stops producing due to the menopause, such as oestrogen and progestogen. Side effects can include bloating, breast tenderness or swelling, nausea, cramps, headaches, indigestion, bleeding, depression and acne.
The NHS advises people who suffer side effects to try to persevere for three months if possible as they can stop as the body gets used to the medication.
Do benefits outweigh risks?
For many women struggling with menopause symptoms the answer is yes.
HRT has been hailed as life-changing by women who say it has let them regain energy levels and live an active life.
In addition to HRT, women suffering from mental health symptoms may be offered cognitive behavioural therapy. There are also moisturisers and lubricants to ease discomfort.
How many take the drug?
Nearly two million women in England are taking HRT, which can come as patches, gels or tablets. HRT use jumped by 35 per cent in the last year, as women have sought prescriptions to ease symptoms.
What’s an early menopause?
Roughly one in 20 women will experience an early menopause, when periods stop before the age of 45.
Signs can include having irregular menstrual cycles over a few years, spotting between periods and changes in monthly bleeding.
Early menopause can increase the risk of osteoporosis (weak bones), heart disease, depression, dementia and Parkinson’s. Sufferers also tend to experience menopause symptoms more severely.
Early menopause is different to premature menopause, which is the term used for when a woman’s periods stop before the age of 40. This only affects around 1 per cent of women.
Nearly nine in ten women suffer from symptoms. Mental health symptoms include changes to mood, such as anxiety and low self-esteem, as well as memory or concentration problems.
Hot flushes, sleeping difficulties, heart palpations, headaches and muscle and joint pain are among the physical symptoms. As are weight gain and a reduced sex drive.
Symptoms usually start before the menopause officially begins, as periods become irregular. This is the perimenopause.