I congratulate hon. Members on leading this debate. We recognise that changing the culture of late payment is a challenge that requires both Government and business

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to play their part. We expect business to do so, and we expect Government and all public sector bodies to do so too.

4.55 pm

Stephen Metcalfe: I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate, which has been very interesting and enlightening. It is rewarding to see such support for addressing this problem from Members on both sides of the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on her valuable campaign. I very much wanted to quote a lot of her statistics in my opening remarks, but felt that that would be stealing her thunder. I wanted to allow her to talk about that aspect. It is shocking that so many large companies have not signed up, and we must encourage them to do more. She was right to point out that it is an attitudinal problem that we somehow have to break. I am conscious that I spent a lot of time talking about the public sector, but of course the public sector is a large buyer from the private sector, and that is where the problems start.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) made some excellent points and highlighted particular cases in her constituency that well demonstrate the problems we are facing. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) stressed that small businesses should not be acting as the banks for big business, thereby payrolling them.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) talked about legislation that he would like to be implemented soon. The problem with legislation is that, regardless of whether it is on the statute book, if suppliers are too afraid to utilise it, then it will not necessarily solve the problem. Suppliers will be afraid of rocking the boat, biting the hand that feeds them, or whichever metaphor one wants to use. Instead, therefore, we need to change the culture. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) talked about one nation. In fact, this is about one notion, “Pay up and pay now”, because that is what will release the funds into our economy.

I thank the Minister for his very constructive remarks. I hope that he will look back at the debate to see whether there is anything further we can do. I was pleased to hear that he agrees that the public sector should pay—that is always a good start. He said that payment terms have got better and that people are now paying 1.3 days earlier, but it is also the case that the amount owed has increased above the agreed terms. The problem with the mystery shopper system, as I have heard from some people who did not wish to be named, is that in very short or narrow supply chains it is very easy to identify who phoned in and made the complaint.

Whether in the public or the private sector, people need to change the culture; they need to pay their invoices and pay up, because that will release billions of pounds into the economy and deliver what we want. Change the culture, release the funds, let us drive some growth. I thank everyone very much for their constructive comments.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of stimulating growth through better use of the Prompt Payment Code.

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Katrice Lee

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

5 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I am honoured to have been able to secure this debate on behalf of my constituent, Mr Richard Lee, on the disappearance of his daughter, Katrice, although extremely saddened that I have had to secure such a debate. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me permission to speak on behalf of Mr Lee on the Floor of the House and to set out his concerns regarding the handling of this distressing case. I hope, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you will pass on my thanks to Mr Speaker for allowing me to do so. I also pay tribute to the great, unstinting and diligent work carried out by the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage)—Mrs Lee and her daughter are constituents of hers—who, I believe, will want to catch your eye later, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Lee served in the British Army for 34 years and was considered to have provided exemplary service to Queen and county. The facts of the case, as they are known, are simple to relay and yet horrifyingly tragic. On 28 November 1981—her second birthday—Katrice Lee went missing from a NAAFI supermarket in Schloss Neuhaus, near Paderborn, Germany. Katrice and her mother had gone to the supermarket to buy things for Katrice’s birthday party. It is every parent’s worst nightmare: after turning her back for a moment to pick up some crisps for her daughter’s party, Katrice’s mother found that she had vanished. In the 31 years since then, no trace of Katrice or what became of her has ever been discovered.

As a father, I know the nauseating feeling people get when their child is out of their sight for just a moment in a public place. Every parent has experienced it, if only fleetingly. Mr Lee has told me that he has held on to that feeling for more than 30 years. I cannot think of anything worse.

The investigation to find Katrice was botched from the very start. It appears that, because Katrice was the daughter of a serving British soldier stationed in Germany, there was considerable uncertainty as to who should take the lead in the investigation—whether it should be the Royal Military Police or the German authorities—and that valuable time, resources and evidence were either wasted or lost as this tussle over territorial jurisdiction and responsibility was debated. As a result, border staff were not notified of Katrice’s disappearance immediately, despite the fact that Paderborn is only two hours’ drive from the borders of the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as the northern ports of West Germany. No road blocks or checks were put in place, even though autobahn 33 cuts through Paderborn. Staff in the NAAFI supermarket on the shop floor and the tills where Katrice was last seen were not interviewed until six weeks after she went missing. Almost even worse, a sergeant-major at the base, who was close to the family and who had even looked after Katrice’s sister the week after she went missing, has only in the past month— 31 years after the disappearance—been identified as a key witness and interviewed by the authorities. How many other key witnesses and how much vital evidence

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have been lost due to the inadequate and incompetent handling of this case in the early days and weeks after Katrice went missing?

The family believe that the Royal Military Police were led quickly to an early conclusion by the German police inquiry that Katrice had wandered off out of the supermarket and had tragically drowned in the nearby river. However, the family strongly believe that that is simply implausible. It is difficult to believe that a two-year-old could wander out of a busy supermarket, past a crowd of shoppers, down a ramp, past a female ticket seller, across a crowded car park and then walk alone and undetected for more than 200 metres before somehow falling into the river.

Katrice had a real phobia of water, and the family strongly believe that, even if one could accept that she could emerge undetected at the water’s edge, she would have gone nowhere near the river. In addition, the river at that point had storm grates attached to it, but no evidence, such as a piece of clothing, has ever been found to have been captured by the grates in the river. The river has never given up any evidence that Katrice fell in, and yet that has been the authorities’ accepted scenario, without any tangible evidence, for many months and years.

The investigation has been subject to a catalogue of errors for decades. At the time of her disappearance, Katrice had a turn in her left eye—as did her sister—that would need corrective surgery at some point when she turned nine or 10. The Lee family raised that point personally with the officer heading the investigation, as they believed that it was a relatively unusual characteristic that could be used as part of the case and identified as a potential line of inquiry. Six months after informing the head of the investigation about the matter, the family asked the investigating officer whether progress had been made, only to be told by the officer in charge that he denied all knowledge of the information and informed that it was a “figment of the Lees’ imagination”. It does not seem unreasonable or particularly onerous for Interpol to have carried out a check of any medical procedures on a turn in a 10-year-old’s left eye in Germany or elsewhere on the continent in about 1989 or 1990, but no such lines of inquiry were pursued.

In February 2001, police and Army investigators took blood samples from Mr Lee and the whole family in the hope that advances in DNA analysis and technology would provide fresh leads. The DNA samples were to be placed on an Interpol database. However, earlier this year, some 30 years after Katrice went missing and more than a decade after the original samples had been provided, my constituent and the rest of the family were asked once again for samples. Despite the requests from Mr Lee, no explanation has ever been given for the second request. My constituent does not know whether the original DNA samples have been lost, degraded, used or checked against criminal evidence or hospital records.

It is little wonder, given what the family have been put through by the sheer incompetence of the investigation, which, let us not forget, came on top of their distress over their missing Katrice, that trust has broken down.

In a letter to me dated 6 July 2012, the Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), who at that time had responsibility for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, stated:

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“the Royal Military Police are conducting a thorough reinvestigation of the circumstances surrounding Katrice’s disappearance, and it is hoped that the application of modern investigative techniques may bring new information to light. However, this is a sizable task which initially involves the review of thousands of documents, and will understandably take some time.”

Although I welcome the reinvestigation of the case, that comment from the Minister worries me greatly. It sounds like a classic case of kicking the matter into the long grass to get the Lee family off the Royal Military Police’s back for a while and to keep the embarrassments relating to the initial handling of the case out of the public domain. That is why it is vital that we have transparency in this case.

Will the Minister, who is a decent and honourable man, resolve tonight to undertake a number of things? Will he provide, here and now on the Floor of the House, a firm commitment on when precisely the reinvestigation will be completed? The family want not a vague promise, but a definite date for its conclusion in the next few weeks or months.

Will the Minister go further and pledge to commission an independent investigation or inquiry into the Royal Military Police’s handling of the case? I am concerned that embarrassments about the way that the case was initially dealt with and subsequently handled over many years have led to a cover up of the facts. A reinvestigation by the Royal Military Police of a case handled by the Royal Military Police does not fill me with confidence that all possible criticisms and flaws will be brought to light. Only an impartial and independent review will do that. Will the Minister pledge to have one?

Will the Minister also pledge to give the family access to the case files? I understand the point fully that such access may hamper the independence of a future trial, but for goodness’ sake, this case is 31 years old. The family holds more experience and expert knowledge on this matter than any other group. In looking at the files, they might see holes, discrepancies or potential lines of inquiry that might not otherwise be apparent. Will the Minister ensure that access to the case files is granted to the family?

The family would also like to meet the Prime Minister. He has met the families of other missing children, but not the Lees. He stated in a letter to the hon. Member for Gosport that he is too busy. I want the Prime Minister to meet Mr Lee, father to father, and for him to pledge that all the necessary resources of his Administration will be made available to help the Lee family receive answers. Will the Minister facilitate such a meeting?

My constituent has suffered the anguish of his daughter going missing every single day for 31 years. That anguish is deeper with the knowledge that the investigation was botched from the start, that the incompetence continued for many years and that we are no further forward in finding out what happened to little Katrice. Thirty-one years is far too long. The Minister needs to pledge firm action to reassure Mr Lee tonight.

5.9 pm

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): I am grateful for the chance to contribute to this debate and thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) for giving me

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time to speak. I pay tribute to his consistently effective and diligent support of Mr Lee and the family in this terrible and tragic case.

The hon. Gentleman has more than adequately summed up our shared concerns about the failures of the initial investigation and the subsequent handling of the case, so I will not go into that any further. However, I want to speak briefly on behalf of my constituents, Katrice’s mum, Sharon Lee, and sister, Natasha. Like Katrice’s father, they have endured three decades of suffering, not knowing what happened to this much-loved little girl on that awful day in 1981. It is vital that their voices are now heard after decades of frustration, that appropriate empathy is shown after years of disregard, and that action is taken to show that we care equally about the life of every missing child and every grief stricken parent.

Katrice’s mum, Sharon, first contacted me over a year ago as we approached the 30th anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance. She spoke of the anguish she felt when she realised that Katrice was no longer in sight in that busy NAAFI supermarket in Germany. It is a feeling of rising panic and horror which nearly every parent will be familiar with and, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool pointed out, will have experienced in a shop or public space at some point. Sharon and Mr Lee have lived with that feeling for more than 30 years.

As a mother, I can only begin to imagine the horror of losing a child, let alone never discovering what happened to them. The tragedy of this case, however, was cruelly compounded by the incompetence and insensitivity of the Royal Military Police. In an investigation seemingly plagued by failings, sources were overlooked and potential leads neglected, while the family were left without adequate support. The Royal Military Police, and the Army, let down a British soldier and his family when they were most in need of help and support. I hope that the Minister will offer his firm assurances that lessons were learnt from that inglorious time, and that service personnel and their families today would never face such an insensitive instance of neglect.

Let me turn our attention to the future. Despite the heartbreak that both Sharon and Natasha have endured, I have been struck by their quiet determination to carry on fighting to discover what happened to Katrice. That shows courage and strength that I am sure we all greatly admire. Although I welcome the resources and manpower that have recently been committed to the renewed investigation, may I respectfully ask the Minister why it took 30 years for an appropriate level of gravity to be attached to this case, and call on him to confirm that that effort will be maintained regardless of whether the case remains in the media spotlight?

Will the Minister give the family a clear indication about the time frame of the investigation, as I am sure he will agree that they have waited long enough for that to be concluded? When the current investigation is complete, I urge the MOD to release the initial case files to the family. At a time when we are thankfully starting to accept that past mistakes cannot be brushed under the carpet, there can be no attempt to cover up the failings of the original investigation.

Finally, the Minister knows that I respect him enormously, and to my mind there is no one better to be trusted with a responsibility as vital as the welfare of

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defence personnel. Will he reflect on how this family have been treated over the years at the hands of the Royal Military Police, the Army and the Government? In truth, I was disappointed that the Prime Minister declined to meet the family when I raised this issue at Prime Minister’s questions earlier this year. Surely it is not right to cherry-pick which desperate, grief-stricken family of a lost child is more worthy than others of face time with the Prime Minister.

With that in mind, I plead with the Minister to commit to meet the family, so that he may better understand how to take this case forward to personally address their concerns and ensure that the cruel mistakes of the past are never repeated.

5.13 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Mark Francois): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing this important debate on the case of his constituent, Mr Richard Lee, whose daughter, Katrice, went missing from a British Army shopping complex in Germany in 1981. I am also aware of the interest shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) as constituency MP for Katrice’s mother, and I welcome her contribution to the debate. We have heard two earnest and passionate contributions from both sides of the House; this is a completely bipartisan matter, which is exactly as it should be.

Briefly, may I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hartlepool for his comments yesterday during Prime Minister’s questions? He asked the first question to the Deputy Prime Minister, and echoed effectively his tribute to our recently fallen personnel in Afghanistan. That was appreciated in the Ministry of Defence, and, I am sure, by the families of those personnel as well.

The Royal Anglian Regiment recently lost Corporal Alex Guy during its tour of Helmand province. Its homecoming was held in Basildon, Essex, this afternoon, and I represented the Government. I pay tribute to that regiment for a fine and well-conducted tour, and thank Mo Larkin, BEM, the mayor of Basildon, and all her staff, for giving it such a wonderfully warm homecoming that was supported by thousands of people in Basildon town centre. I wanted to get that on the record.

The Katrice Lee case is very distressing, and I should like to extend my heartfelt sympathy to the Lee family, who must have suffered terribly since the disappearance of their daughter some 30 years ago. Both hon. Members who have spoken have corresponded with my predecessor on a number of occasions, and they will understand that there are areas of the case that I cannot discuss in detail on the Floor of the House, not least because they relate to an ongoing police investigation. However, I should like to reassure them that the Royal Military Police are currently going to every length to try to discover the truth about what happened to Katrice. I will try and give at least some indication of that in my remarks.

As the hon. Gentleman has outlined, his constituent was a British soldier serving in Germany at the time of his daughter’s disappearance, a posting on which he was accompanied by his then wife, Sharon, Katrice’s mother. On the morning of Saturday 28 November 1981, the Lee family were visited by other family members. It appears that a group of them, including Katrice, went

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out shopping for provisions for Katrice’s second birthday party, which was planned for that afternoon. The family were shopping in a busy NAAFI shopping complex one mile from the family’s married quarter. This was the day after the last payday before Christmas and, as hon. Members would expect, the shop was therefore understandably very busy. At approximately 11 am, while the family were queuing to pay for their shopping, Katrice was lost from sight, and despite the frantic efforts of the family and staff, could not be found.

Under the NATO status of forces agreement, jurisdiction for the case rested with the Royal Military Police. Area searches were conducted on the ground, by helicopter and by diving teams in the nearby River Lippe. Large numbers of Royal Military Police, German police, British troops and volunteers—large numbers of people—worked tirelessly to try to find Katrice, but sadly, as we know, to no avail.

In February 2000, following a review by the then National Crime Faculty, the Royal Military Police again looked at the investigation and developed new lines of inquiry, which included the arrest and questioning of a former soldier, but ultimately, the case remained unsolved, partly owing to a lack of conclusive evidence, and the investigation was suspended in 2003.

In January 2012 the Royal Military Police reopened the investigation under the name Operation BUTE, and decided to go back to first principles to reinvestigate the case. Essentially, there is now a new police investigation using the very latest techniques and methodologies to explore all possible explanations for Katrice’s disappearance. The investigation team consists of military police personnel supported by experienced civilian investigators—all are trained to national policing standards. Investigators are using the latest Home Office large major inquiry system—the HOLMES 2 computer system—to provide a greater level of analysis of the available investigative material than was previously possible.

Expert advice has also been sought from the Serious Organised Crime Agency operational support team, specialists from the child abduction unit with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation at Quantico, and a range of other leading experts. Where evidence is available, the latest forensic techniques are being used, including DNA, offender profiling and facial age progression techniques. Investigators are also attempting to trace and re-interview the nearly 2,000 people who visited the NAAFI supermarket on the day that Katrice disappeared. We should bear in mind what a busy day it was, as I have explained.

All opportunities, including a planned further appeal on the BBC’s “Crimewatch” programme, which is due to take place later this month, are being pursued. I am advised that in cases of this type, an appeal even many years on can sometimes spark someone to come forward. We can only hope that that will happen in this instance.

Since the launch of Operation BUTE, the Royal Military Police have been engaged with the family using specialist family liaison officers, and every effort has been made to keep them informed of developments. That support to the Lee family will, of course, continue for as long as it needs to. I am conscious that the family, for perfectly understandable reasons, has sought access to files from the original investigation. However, as the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, this is a live police investigation, and it is not appropriate to release that

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information at this stage, not least because we would risk prejudicing any potential criminal proceedings that may arise. However, there may be something that we can do, and I will come to that in a moment. All police forces also have a duty to protect the identity of anyone who comes to their attention during an investigation but against whom no further action was either possible or appropriate. The rules of natural justice must still apply.

I understand, and support, the unwavering determination of Katrice’s parents to uncover the truth of what happened, and I can assure them that there will be no attempt to cover up any past failings. I am happy to repeat previous assurances given to the family that the Royal Military Police will be open about any failings that are identified and that, when the time is right, we will look again at the issue of disclosure. I also know that Brigadier Bill Warren, the Provost Marshal (Army) and the chief officer of the Royal Military Police, has indicated that, at an appropriate point in his team’s work, he will ask a civilian police force to review the entire investigation. The outcome of that review will be shared with Katrice’s parents as far as it is possible to do so. I hope that, at least in part, addresses one of the points that the hon. Member for Hartlepool has put to the House.

As everyone will know, we do not have a time machine and we cannot go back to the events of that day in 1981 when Katrice tragically disappeared. But what the Royal Military Police are doing is rigorously applying all available modern investigative techniques and seeking the advice of leading international colleagues. In other words, they are doing everything practically possible, given the time that has elapsed, to get to the bottom of what happened to Katrice.

I have only come to this case recently, having been in post for some two months, but I have looked at the details and I fully appreciate that this has been a long torment for the Lee family. I know that they have concerns about how the case was handled at the time, as both hon. Members have reflected in the debate. I would therefore be happy to meet the hon. Member for Hartlepool and his constituent in order to discuss the case in more detail. I am also happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and her constituent. We can either do this in one meeting or two, depending on the family’s preference.

I propose that before Christmas, or early in the new year at the latest, we meet at the headquarters of the Royal Military Police’s Special Investigation Branch in

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Bulford, where the Provost Marshal (Army) and his investigative team will be available to discuss the current investigation with the Lee family personally and to answer any questions they may have. If the hon. Members and the family are content, I will also be present at those meetings and discussions so that I can hear the questions and answers for myself. As the Minister directly responsible for this issue, I hope that I have been able to make an offer to both hon. Members this evening, the spirit of which I hope they will understand. Once they have discussed this issue with the family, if our three offices can co-ordinate promptly and we can all sort our diaries out, I hope that we can all meet in Bulford. I think that that would be the most useful place to meet, ideally in the run-up to Christmas, but if for whatever reason that is not possible, then as early as we can in January.

I will also be happy to meet again with the hon. Members and their constituents, either collectively or individually, once the investigation has concluded to discuss its conclusions at that time. I cannot give a guarantee this evening at the Dispatch Box for when the investigation will conclude. I completely and utterly understand why hon. Members and the family would like me to do that. I do get it, if I can put it like that, but the investigation must be allowed to run its proper course. If the family have frustrations about that, which I can understand, then I suggest that the best thing would be if they put those to the Provost Marshal (Army) directly when we meet. Perhaps he can update them fully at that time on where the investigation has got to and at least try to give them some idea of when matters might be brought to a conclusion. I hope the House can appreciate the spirit in which we are now attempting to address this matter.

This has been a tragic case. It has gone on for more than 30 years. The two hon. Members have done exactly the right thing in bringing it to the attention of the House. I hope they might feel that I, on behalf of the Department, have tried to do the right thing to take this as seriously as the matter obviously warrants. Perhaps we can all continue this discussion in Bulford and do our best to get to the bottom of what happened to Katrice. I hope that we can try to help the family with what must have been an almost unbearable burden for more than three decades.

Question put and agreed to.

5.25 pm

House adjourned.