MP WRITES: bid for harsher penalties for cyber bullies

Richard Lee with a photograph of his daughter Katrice
Richard Lee with a photograph of his daughter Katrice

Readers will be familiar with the heartbreaking case of Katrice Lee, who disappeared in Germany on her second birthday back in 1981.

Katrice’s father, Richard Lee, lives in Hartlepool and has had to live with the sickening feeling – the feeling that is every parent’s worst nightmare- for over 30 years.

That feeling has been made worse by the fact that the investigation into Katrice’s disappearance was botched from the very start, meaning that valuable clues, evidence and lines of enquiry were not pursued in the vital first hours and days of Katrice’s disappearance.

Mr Lee and his family were virtually told they were liars and trouble makers.

I had a debate in the House of Commons last year about the case of Katrice and, if any good came out of it, it was an acknowledgement from the Royal Military Police that they had failed the Lee family for over 30 years.

I cannot emphasise enough, speaking as a dad, how this is any parent’s worst nightmare.

The appalling feeling of having your little girl disappear and not knowing where she is for over 30 years is tragedy enough, something I would not wish to see on my worst enemy, let alone someone as decent, principled and who served Queen and country for 30 years as Mr Lee did.

But it is even worse – the grim knowledge that the authorities let you, your family and Katrice down because they hadn’t carried out a proper and professional investigation, is a punch in the stomach every single day, at a time when you are down on your knees in agony at not knowing what has happened to your little girl.

But, it is even worse than all that. Last year the family was the victim of a sick “troll” on the internet, with the Lees receiving online messages from a woman in her 30s, who is around the same age as Katrice is now, saying that she believed that she was Katrice.

When a DNA test showed she couldn’t possibly be Katrice, her messages became even more sick, twisted and hurtful. She blamed the family for Katrice’s disappearance and posted online to Katrice’s mother: “You silly old b***h, you thought you had seen harassment. You have not seen harassment yet.”

I share Mr Lee’s disgust that the individual was not sent to jail for her actions.

Cyber-bullying is on the rise. Somehow, people don’t think thoughtless abuse, intimidation and threats are as important when put on Twitter and Facebook as when written in a letter or shouted at in the street. This has got to change.

Last Friday Mr Lee and I met with Barry Coppinger, Cleveland’s Police and Crime Commissioner and Ron Hogg, Durham’s Police and Crime Commissioner, to see what further action can be done both locally and nationally to ensure that cases of cyber-bullying are dealt with with the right level of priority and severity by the Police and courts.

Barry and Ron agreed to work closely together to ensure that victims of this crime are better protected and that the police give it sufficient priority.

We have an Anti-Social Behaviour Bill going through Parliament at the moment, and I’m going to look at tabling an amendment to the Bill on this issue. Mr Lee and his family have gone through enough anguish over the past 30 years with the disappearance of Katrice. I think the law should be able to protect him against vicious threats online too.