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Jon Venables

Volume 507: debated on Monday 8 March 2010

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor if he will make a statement on the circumstances of the breach of licence conditions by, and recall to prison of, Jon Venables.

I am most grateful for this opportunity to explain to the House the situation relating to Jon Venables. The background is as follows. In 1993, James Bulger, a young child aged two and a half, was the victim of a most horrific murder. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both then aged 10, were convicted of James’s murder at a trial at Preston Crown court in November 1993. They were given the mandatory sentence for murder by juveniles, namely detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure. The minimum tariff was originally set by the trial judge at eight years. That was increased to 10 years by the then Lord Chief Justice, the late Lord Taylor, and then to 15 by the Home Secretary of the day, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Following a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in December 1999, the final decision on tariff setting was transferred from the Home Secretary to the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, who set a tariff of seven years and eight months.

Venables and Thompson were granted new identities, which were, and remain, protected by an injunction. They were released by the Parole Board on a life licence in June 2001. Various stringent conditions were attached, and they have been under probation supervision.

During the week beginning 22 February this year, officials in my Department learned of a compromise of Venables’s new identity. Subsequently, information came to light that Venables may have committed a serious breach of his licence conditions. He was recalled to custody the same day, and has since remained in prison. A Parole Board hearing will be held as soon as is practicable. Once we had established as much information as we could, we informed the bereaved parents of James Bulger of the recall, under the statutory victim contact scheme. My Department later issued a brief statement to the press regarding Venables’s recall to custody.

As the House is aware, we have not provided full details about this case, beyond confirming that Venables faces extremely serious allegations. That is because the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions have advised that a premature disclosure of information could undermine the integrity of the criminal justice process, including the continuing investigation and the potential for a prosecution in the future.

I fully understand the concern of James Bulger’s parents and the wider public about this case, and, indeed, the frustration voiced by James’s mother, Mrs. Fergus, that insufficient information has been provided to her. As I indicated earlier today, I have been giving further active consideration as to whether it would be appropriate to provide more information, but I have concluded that that would not currently be in the interests of justice. If charges do follow, it is critical that it is possible to hold a fair trial—fair for the defence and fair for the prosecution. As I said on Saturday morning, our motivation is solely to ensure that extremely serious allegations are properly investigated and that justice is done. No one in this country would want anything other. If any offender on a life licence is charged with a serious further offence, a thorough review of the supervision must be carried out—in any event, I will give the House further information as soon as I can.

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting the question and for giving, as a result, an opportunity to the Justice Secretary to make a statement. He might on reflection conclude that he could profitably have explained earlier to the House the limits to what can be disclosed at this time because of the risk of prejudicing recall proceedings or a prosecution—nobody wants to do that. Explaining in summary the legal process, the time frame for the parole proceedings and the procedure used, and the grounds of recall, as well as giving a commitment to disclose more information once the relevant parole or prosecution decisions have been taken, in redacted form if necessary to protect Mr. Venables’s identity, could all help to avoid the frenzy of speculation that has arisen in this case.

All in this House will have a shared concern with the Justice Secretary to ensure that that speculation does not interfere with the course of justice. He may agree with me that the fact that he and the Home Secretary have given different comments to the media, which appeared somewhat inconsistent, does not help public confidence in the justice system. Will the Justice Secretary please, in response, try to cover at least some of these points now? Nobody needs reminding of the appalling circumstances of the murder of James Bulger—it shocked the country—but the role of Ministers is not to ebb and flow with media speculation.

Can the Justice Secretary now explain what licence conditions were placed on Mr. Venables? Can the Justice Secretary give a commitment to report to the House as soon as practicable on the action that the probation service has taken in response to every reported breach of licence by Mr. Venables since his release, so that the public can be assured that he was properly supervised? The Justice Secretary will be aware that there is now disquiet, including from Mrs. Fergus, that that has not happened. Can he also reassure the House that the grounds for not saying more at this stage constitute a practical need to avoid identifying Mr. Venables, given his new identity and the possible requirements of a trial process, rather than, as some sometimes fear, a broader creeping advance of privacy rights for criminals, which comes at the expense of public transparency? Does the Justice Secretary recognise how important it is for public confidence that justice is not only done, but seen to be done? In discharging what are often very difficult ministerial responsibilities the Justice Secretary is fully entitled to our understanding, but he needs to explain those difficulties to the House if he is to obtain its support.

Let me respond to the points that have been made. I think that I am well known for always being ready to come to this House. This matter was under very active consideration by both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service throughout last week, and I do not believe that it would have been appropriate for me to have come to the House at that stage—I am very happy to be here today. As for actions that I could have taken to avoid what the hon. and learned Gentleman calls the “frenzy of speculation” by the press, I must say that no statement by me in this House would have avoided that.

I have already explained, as I did this morning on the radio, that the Home Secretary and I are in exactly the same place on this. What he said last Wednesday was the same as that which I have said. What he said was simply to explain that there was a criminal justice process in prospect and that it was very important, as I have just said today, not to prejudice that. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me about the licence conditions. Some of those were standard—attached to any offender on a life licence—and some were specific to the case of Venables and Thompson. For example, neither of the offenders could make any contact with the other and, self-evidently, they could make no contact whatever with the family of poor James Bulger. Both were wholly excluded from the Merseyside area, and there were other conditions attached.

On the grounds for not being able to say any more, this has nothing to do with what the hon. and learned Gentleman called a “creeping advance” of privacy for defendants; it is about protecting the possibility of a future prosecution and trial process, and I think that the whole House understands the imperative of doing that. I fully understand the frustration not least of James Bulger’s parents, Mrs. Fergus and Mr. Bulger. Mrs. Fergus, in comments made on the television this morning, accepted that although she is obviously very anxious to have full information, she does not want that information to arise prematurely in a way that could prejudice any future criminal justice process, and that is exactly the position that I hold.

May I offer my full support to the Secretary of State for what he is trying to achieve in this case? The case of James Bulger will obviously arouse strong emotions even 17 years on, but does he agree that the rule of law is more important even than those emotions, and is certainly more important than the commercial interests of competing tabloid newspapers? Does he agree also that in a case such as this, in which for all we know there might be a not guilty plea in a jury trial, there is a grave risk of severe damage to the public interest if there is premature release of prejudicial information? People have been saying that there is a right to know, but does he agree that there is no right to know everything immediately?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in this case. This is about the rule of law, but the rule of law is there not as an abstract but to protect everybody, above all the victims of crime and especially the bereaved victims of the most horrific of all crimes—murder. Yes, of course, it also protects the accused. No charges have yet been laid; still less has a trial taken place and a conviction followed. What we value in this country—what everyone must value—is trial by a fair judicial process, and not by any other means.

The Bulger family are my constituents, and I spoke to Jamie Bulger’s uncle, Jimmy Bulger, earlier this afternoon. Understandably, the family are feeling very distressed indeed about what has taken place, mainly in the media, over the last week or so, and of course about what might underlie those reports. Their concern is that, as soon as possible, as much information as possible as to what breaches of the licence may have taken place—and for that matter, what offences may have been committed—is brought into the public domain. At the moment, the problem is that there is so much speculation that it is only adding to the distress of the family, and is not bringing a prosecution or any other legal action any nearer to a conclusion.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Of course I accept that the parents of James Bulger deserve, and should expect, the maximum information that is possible. The difficulty is the one that I have already explained. I am making arrangements to meet Mrs. Fergus and Mr. Bulger, James’s parents, and that meeting will, I hope, take place this week. I will then explain as much as I can, but there are inevitably limits on what I can say unless and until a decision is made about charge.

Order. As right hon. and hon. Members know, I always try to accommodate as many of them as possible. I would love to get everybody in, but I need short questions and short answers.

Does the Secretary of State, who has acted correctly to protect the trial process, recognise that there are many cases in which newspapers, if they are not careful, make it more difficult, or perhaps impossible, to convict guilty people?

Yes, I do, and that is something on which newspaper editors need to reflect. The consequence of coverage—which is a matter for their decision; that is not for any politician to suggest—may be the opposite of what they intend.

Jon Venables, Robert Thompson and their families lived in my constituency at the time of the murder, which took place in my constituency, so it is indelibly imprinted on my mind. Does the Secretary of State agree that there are whited sepulchres among the media who are seeking to whip up public disquiet and almost a hysterical reaction to the issue? If they are successful, is that not likely to be counter-productive, and will it not ensure that there is not the thing that we would all wish to see—that is, a fair trial for Jon Venables, if that is appropriate?

As I have already said, there are important responsibilities on the press in such situations. We want—we have to have—a trial process that is, as I say, fair for the defence and the prosecution. Justice is never served if, as a result of prejudicial reporting in advance of any prosecution and trial, the trial cannot proceed, and someone who might otherwise have been found guilty is acquitted before the trial starts.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of any case in which a person who has been given a new identity has been tried under that new, and thus assumed, identity? Is it not inevitable in those circumstances that the original identity will be disclosed in the trial, making a fair trial extraordinarily difficult, and is that a factor that will weigh with the Crown Prosecution Service when it determines whether to prosecute?

I am not aware of any case of the kind that the right hon. and learned Gentleman describes. I should say that the number of offenders who have been granted a new identity is just a handful, so the possibility of there having been any trial is very small indeed. If there is a trial, it will be for the prosecution and defence initially, and then for the trial judge, to determine what arrangements need to be made for that trial to be conducted fairly.

Should not the genuine thirst to know the facts in a case of this sort be quenched by proper investigation and the facts coming out in front of a court of law? Does my right hon. Friend agree that we perhaps need to review the legal requirements that are in place to protect the likelihood of successful prosecution in this day and age, when 24/7 news and constant blogging run far ahead of the known facts?

That would be a matter for others, and I would not want to suggest that, as a result of the very unusual circumstances of this case, new laws should be introduced. Generally, the arrangements for reporting allegations work reasonably well; I think that that is the view of the Law Officers and the courts. This case is wholly unusual because of its notoriety and the exceptional circumstances of the offenders.

I do not think that my question could possibly prejudice a successful prosecution. Can the Justice Secretary assure the House that no person has been killed or seriously physically injured as a result of the matter that is being investigated?

The Justice Secretary and the Home Secretary are absolutely right not to jeopardise any future prosecutions, because an abandoned trial would be the worst thing that could happen, but at the same time, will the Justice Secretary assure me that he is trying to meet as fully as possible the needs of the Bulger family, which must be considerable at this time, which will bring back all the memories of what happened all those years ago?

Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend for that question. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), I do, I hope, understand the profound concern and frustration of Mrs. Fergus and Mr. Bulger—James’s parents. I also feel frustrated, because I would like to be in a position where I could tell them as much as I know, but I do not believe that that would, at this time, serve their interests any more than it would serve the interests of justice.

The whole House will probably take the view that Lord Chief Justice Woolf’s tariff of less than eight years was inadequate. That notwithstanding, I think that the Justice Secretary has taken exactly the right stance. He will undoubtedly come under great pressure in the next few weeks on this issue and I hope that he will adhere to his intention to ensure that there is no prejudicing of any trial and, no matter how despicable the individual involved, he will protect the identity from accidental as well as deliberate release so that we do not see lynch-mob law in this country, even in the prisons.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. The safety of this individual in the prison system is also a consideration that we have a duty to consider. Indeed, it is under active consideration. On the wider issue, the right hon. Gentleman was in the House in 1999 and 2000 when I had to make two statements about the decision of the European Court of Human Rights. It was well known that I would have preferred the tariff setting to have stayed with the Home Secretary of the day, but the decision—which, by the way, was nothing whatever to do with the Human Rights Act, which was not even in force at that stage—had to be accepted, as was recognised on all sides.

The Justice Secretary spoke of the need for a thorough review of supervision. To the extent to which he is able to comment, has concern been raised in this case about the probation services and their supervisory role?

I do not want to anticipate any review. I was pointing out that if there were a charge, a mandatory serious further offence review would automatically follow. If there is not a charge, I shall give consideration to the situation and report to the House.

I am most grateful to colleagues for their co-operation, which enabled everybody who wanted to get in to do so in a timely fashion.