A police poster seeking help in finding Nicola Bulley is pinned to a tree next to the riverside bench where was last seen - Asadour Guzelian/Guzelian

A police poster seeking help in finding Nicola Bulley is pinned to a tree next to the riverside bench where was last seen – Asadour Guzelian/Guzelian

The father of Nicola Bulley has said the family feel they are “no further on” in finding the missing 45-year-old as police struggle to make progress three weeks after she disappeared.

Speaking on Friday, 21 days after his daughter’s disappearance, Ernie Bulley said “every day is a struggle”, with the family desperately waiting for news.

Ms Bulley, a mother of two, vanished while walking her dog, Willow, in the village of St Michael’s on Wyre in Lancashire.

Her father told Sky News: “Every day is a struggle. [We’re] no further on from three weeks ago. [We] just need a breakthrough to give us some hope.”

His plea came as Ms Bulley’s family appealed to amateur detectives to stop circulating “appalling” rumours and let the police focus on finding her.

Paul Ansell, her partner, and her relatives said they were hurt by people “making up wild theories about her personal life”.

There has been growing anger over details of her struggles with alcohol and the impact of the menopause being released by Lancashire police as part of their appeal for information.

The Information Commissioner is to investigate whether the force breached data laws by revealing private details of her condition. The watchdog has demanded an explanation for the decision to release sensitive personal information amid fears it could have been disclosed inappropriately and potentially in breach of data protection laws.

Dame Vera Baird, the former victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, said the decision by police to divulge Ms Bulley’s struggles with the menopause and alcohol was “as sexist as it comes”, and that it was highly unlikely such details would have been released had she been a man.

Speaking as the search continued, she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “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. No, 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.”

Lancashire Constabulary has referred itself to the watchdog after admitting it had prior contact with Ms Bulley.

Officers attended her home over concern for her welfare just over two weeks before she vanished and has referred itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. However, it has refused to refer itself to the watchog over its wider handling of the case.

It is understood the IOPC had pro-actively contacted the force asking them to consider a referral amid concerns the case was affecting public confidence in policing.

Meanwhile, a local dog walker called Ron said on Friday that something did not “feel right” when he saw Ms Bulley’s phone on a bench overlooking the River Wyre on the morning she went missing.

Describing the moment he saw it, he told Sky News: “I knew I’d seen both the owners of Willow walking this dog in the past, but I hadn’t got their names. I thought somebody had gone to the toilet . . [but then] I thought ‘this is not right’.”

He added that another villager who spotted the phone had contacted his wife to tell her, adding: “Penny rang my wife to say she’d fastened the dog up. After that, it was a progression of things happening. We found out who the couple were. The school was contacted and Paul [Ms Bulley’s partner] arrived.”

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