Belfast Telegraph

Why Bulger killers should have been locked up longer

By Lindy McDowell

In his statement about how he was refraining from providing further information about the case of Jon Venables, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said he had given “active thought” to releasing more details but had concluded this “would not presently be in the interests of justice”.

What is “active thought” when it’s at home?

And how does it differ from the earlier thought of Home Secretary Alan Johnson who revealed that he believed the public did have “a right to know” on what grounds the released killer of two-year-old James Bulger had been recalled to prison?

Jack’s active thought certainly does not appear to run to the extent of even getting right the name of the mother of the murdered child at the centre of this story. (He referred to Denise Fergus as Mrs Ferguson.)

An example there perhaps of active thoughtlessness?

Poor Jack. For, as well as being a tricky issue for the legal system, public moralists, newspaper leader writers and the Probation Service, the Venables case will be a trial (in a wider sense) for Mr Straw and his New Labour cohorts.

With an election in the offing the last thing they need right now is a controversy over child murder with themselves cast in the role of heartless officialdom refusing to come clean with the public in a case which can be very definitely be filed under the heading ‘Every Parent’s Nightmare’.

Yet the release of news about the recall of Venables has been spectacularly mismanaged by the Government from the word go.

As one cop involved in the original investigation into the murder has pointed out: “I can see no reason why they can't release a brief statement, outlining what he is accused of, but stressing that nothing more can be said because of an ongoing police investigation.”

Instead the Government — ever anxious about its own reputation — allowed public unease and speculation to run rampant as it hummed and hawed about what to reveal. Was this “in the interests of justice”?

Or in the interests of a government anxious to cover its own back over this most troubling of cases?

At their 1993 trial Venables and Robert Thompson (then aged 10) were told they would serve eight years for the killing. This was raised to 10 years by the Court of Appeal. Later Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard ruled that the pair should spend at least 15 years in jail. Law lords, in turn, then ruled that Howard had acted unfairly and unlawfully when he took into account public opinion on the case.

When Labour came to power it was Jack Straw who eventually decided on the earliest date (2001) that the boys’ case could be referred to the Parole Board.

Might it have been better if public opinion had been taken into account back then and a longer tariff imposed?

Might it even have been better for those two boys? At the very least the sense that they had served some time in an adult prison might have neutered some of the great public antagonism towards them that sprang from the feeling of many that they’d been too softly treated.

Would it have even spared them (and the public purse) the price of ‘new identities’? More to the point might it have given the experts the opportunity to have better assessed them as young adults prior to release?

We’ll never know. We’re dealing with the here and now. Not with what might have been.

And in the here and now the Government should have been transparent and honest (there’s a word, New Labour!) from the off.

This should be about justice.

It should not be about a pre-election government, desperate to court public opinion, playing politics over one of the most notorious cases of our times. An active thought there, Mr Straw

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