Old wounds opened by Venables re-arrest

One of the two men who were convicted of the murder of James Bulger as boys was recalled to prison about a week ago, something the public found out yesterday and was all over the papers today. There is a lot of speculation about why this happened; it could have been down to a breach of his parole conditions, but the Daily Mirror’s “source” tells us that the person formerly known as Jon Venables had a fight with a colleague at work who subsequently reported him to the police, presumably not knowing who he was. The Government will not tell us why he was taken back into custody, and one minister let slip that it might prejudice any future criminal proceedings.

The Bulger murder happened in 1993; Venables and another 10-year-old boy, then named Robert Thompson, let a toddler away from his parents in a shopping centre, dragged him (past crowds of shoppers) to a railway track, tortured him and then left him to get run over. They were both detained indefinitely and served eight years each. It was believed that putting either of them in an adult prison would undo all the rehabilitative work that had been done in the secure unit, even though politicians had caved in to tabloid-orchestrated petitions and increased their tariff (which is a minimum time they have to serve); ultimately it was down to the Labour human rights legislation that the original eight-year tariff was reinstated. The boys, who had been detained separately, were released under new identities and under various licence conditions, among them that they never contact the Bulger family or return to the Liverpool area without permission.

Yesterday I read this article in the Guardian, and it reminded me of the unpleasant political climate that prevailed under the John Major government. The author’s father ran a residential home in Wales which took in children from disturbed backgrounds, most of whom had not been in trouble with the law but several of whom had harmed themselves or been harmed by others. Some of the children were taken on trips abroad, which the author claims were remarkably successful, but the press found out and reported it in terms of “hooligans” being taken on holidays at state expense:

Despite the sensationalist, fear-mongering coverage of the Bulger case, my father was still taken by surprise when he first went on television to talk about his work. “When the producers of Eamonn Holmes’s chat show invited me along to ‘put across my side of the story’, I naively believed them,” he says. “I walked into the studios just before the programme went live. As it did, a huge ‘Hooligans on Holiday’ banner unrolled behind me. Then three women in the audience stood up with pictures of their dead children, who’d been killed by joyriders. Our kids had never killed anyone, and many hadn’t even offended, but the producers were quite happy to confuse joyriders, murderers, young offenders and children in care.

“Throughout the negative press attention, social services knew the trips worked, and continued to place children with us. But the kids themselves were very upset and angry. They felt they were being verbally abused by the whole country.”

In response to a Sun campaign, Michael Howard, who had become home secretary, (illegally) extended the sentences imposed on Venables and Thompson from 10 years to 15 years. And in response to the media furore surrounding Bryn Melyn, Howard also banned therapeutic trips abroad for children in care.

This was typical of the nastiness of that government, which combined sleaze with sanctimony, lecturing the public about family values and carping at single mothers while several of their ministers were playing away, using tax as an electoral weapon then imposing VAT (sales tax) on domestic fuel, and so on. I remember very well the sense of relief when they were finally removed in 1997 and I found the decision to run Michael Howard as a prime ministerial candidate eight years later disturbing and baffling. Although not implicated in any of the scandals, he was heavily associated with the mean-minded attitude of the government he served in.

As for the situation now, the fact is that Venables (or whatever he is called) is 27 now and committed the murder when he was just ten years old. In many countries, he would not even have been criminally responsible. There should be no giving in to public or press clamour for vengeance, whether or not it carries the “seal of approval” of James Bulger’s mother. If anything, the two boys should have been allowed to emigrate after serving their sentence, as they would have been able to live relatively normal lives in some other part of Europe where the crime would not have raised such emotion as it did here, which may well have meant that they did not need to give people a significantly altered life story as they are believed to have done; people on life licences are not normally allowed to do so, but most murderers are adults when they offend, not children. The case should not be allowed to turn into another Hindley-type saga with recurrent tabloid frenzies and a true crime cottage industry. If he has committed a serious offence, obviously he needs to be punished accordingly; otherwise, they need to get him out of the way as quickly and cleanly as possible.

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