Skip to main content

Jon Venables

Volume 718: debated on Monday 8 March 2010


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat an Answer given by my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice to an Urgent Question asked in another place earlier today.

“Mr Speaker, I am grateful for this opportunity to explain to the House the situation relating to Jon Venables. The background is this. James Bulger, then aged two and a half, was in 1993 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. This was increased to 10 by the then Lord Chief Justice, the late Lord Taylor, and then to 15 by the Home Secretary of the day, the right honourable and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe. Following a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in December 1999, the final decision on tariff setting was transferred 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 learnt of a compromise of Venables’s new identity. Subsequently, information came to light that he may have committed a serious breach of his licence conditions. He was recalled to custody that day and has since remained in prison. A Parole Board hearing will be held as soon as 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. This 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 this would not presently be in the interests of justice.

It is critical that, if charges do follow, 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.

Let me just say this. 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”.

That concludes the Justice Secretary’s Answer.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer given in another place by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. This is a sorry saga. I am sure that most of us would agree that it would have been better if it had not been necessary for the Lord Chancellor to have been called to make such a statement, but we are where we are. Jon Venables has been recalled and there has been considerable speculation in the media about why.

I am sorry to say that Ministers have made conflicting comments, with the Home Secretary saying last Wednesday, I think, that the public had the right to know and the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State saying—more correctly, dare I say?—the opposite. Therefore, it is right that the Minister and the Secretary of State should come to both Houses to explain just what the position is. We think it necessary that they set out what the law is and what the limits are as to what can be disclosed at present without prejudicing any prosecution that may or may not happen in the future.

I have several questions to put to the Minister. First, can he explain what licence conditions were placed on Jon Venables? Will he expand on the commitment that he made as to a further report to the House as soon as possible? Will that include a commitment to comment on the action that the probation service has taken in response to every reported breach of licence by Jon Venables since his release, so that the public can be given the assurance that there was proper supervision? As the Minister is aware, there has been considerable public disquiet on this matter. Can he give an assurance that the grounds for not saying any more at this stage constitute the very practical need to avoid identifying Jon Venables—we all think that that is the right approach, given the new identity that has been established over the years and the possible requirement of a trial process—rather than any broader, creeping advance of privacy rights for criminals at the expense of public transparency? I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to those points in due course.

My Lords, we on these Benches wholly support the stance that the Government have taken on this matter. The murder in Liverpool 17 years ago was an horrific event, which affected everybody in this country and led to a change of people’s attitude towards the criminal justice system. However, we are in a very different situation and it is right that the Government should not give further information that might reveal the current identity of Jon Venables.

The reasons why this stance is taken were expressed by the then Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, in the Hamza case. He said:

“The risk that members of a jury may be affected by prejudice is one that cannot wholly be eliminated. Any member may bring personal prejudices to the jury room and equally there will be a risk that a jury may disregard the directions of the judge when they consider that they are contrary to what justice requires. Our legal principles are designed to reduce such risks to the minimum, but they cannot obviate them altogether … Prejudicial publicity renders more difficult the task of the court, that is of the judge and jury together, in trying the case fairly. Our laws of contempt of court are designed to prevent the media from interfering with the due process of justice by making it more difficult to conduct a fair trial”.

That principle is wholly applicable in the present circumstances.

It was with great surprise that I saw the front-page headlines of a national newspaper today. It would surely amount to a contempt of court under Section 1 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 if Jon Venables has been arrested or even if a warrant for his arrest has been issued. Strict liability contempt applies to newspapers and to legal proceedings that are active, as they would be in the circumstances that I have outlined, at the time of the publication. This may render the publication in contempt, regardless of any intent to interfere with the course of justice in the proceedings. In due course, if Jon Venables under his new identity is brought to trial and convicted, the newspapers will have all the publicity that they may care to disperse to the people of this country and can make all the comments that they wish—but at that time only. Anything that might affect the fairness of any trial, if one should happen, is to be completely deplored.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for what they have said and I will do my best briefly to answer the questions. I do not believe that there is any conflict between what the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary have said. Both are in the same place, as the Justice Secretary said in another place today. In time, of course, it is to be hoped that more details can be disclosed. Both right honourable gentlemen have an interest in there being a fair investigation and a fair trial, if that is what it comes to.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked about licence conditions. There were standard licence conditions on both Thompson and Venables, plus some specific conditions particular to this case. Two examples of the specific conditions that applied in both of the cases are no contact of each with the other and exclusion from Merseyside without permission. As I said, where an offender under probation supervision is charged with a serious further offence, a mandatory review of supervision is triggered, but I have to remind the House that to date no charges have been brought.

I was asked whether our reluctance to say more is to do with some extension of the privacy rights of the accused. No, that is not the position at all. What we are doing, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has so eloquently said, is protecting our criminal justice system, both at the investigation stage and particularly at any possible trial stage later. I am particularly grateful to him for his wholehearted support for the Government’s stance up to now. I am also grateful to him, as the House will be, for reminding us what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, so wisely said in the Hamza case.

My Lords, I must declare a not directly relevant interest, as having been one of the Law Lords who took part in the decision of the House of Lords in R v Home Secretary ex parte Venables in January 1997, in which it was held that the decision of the Home Secretary to increase the tariff from 10 to 15 years should be quashed as a decision that he had no power to take. That is not of any direct relevance in this case, but I thought that I should mention it.

What is of great relevance, it seems to me, is the decision of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, as President of the Family Division in 2001. I see her in her place and no doubt she will tell your Lordships, more accurately than I can, what she said. It was a decision in which Venables and Thompson were the claimants against News Group Newspapers after the tariff had expired. In that case, the hearing lasted some five days and the noble and learned Baroness went into the matter in great detail. She granted a permanent injunction to the claimants in that case, to prevent the defendants from disclosing any information that might lead to the discovery of the new identities that Venables and Thompson had been granted. She said that she was doing this because she held that, in the very exceptional circumstances of the case, the rights of confidence, which she found established in that case, took precedence over the rights of the press to publish. Perhaps even more relevantly, she said:

“If their new identities were discovered, I am satisfied that neither of them would have any chance of a normal life and that there is a real and strong possibility that their lives would be at risk”.

Does the Minister see any reason to disagree with that view or to say that the circumstances that applied then are not equally applicable now? Of course, if a trial is to take place, other considerations may arise, but for the moment, at any rate, that must be the right solution. Does the Minister agree?

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord. We agree absolutely. That is the reason for the way in which we have approached the matter until this stage. As the House will know, it is very rare under our system for new identities to be ordered by the court. They are not put into effect unless the situation demands it. The answer to the noble and learned Lord’s question is yes.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble and learned Baroness, who will be able to speak in a moment. My question is about the statement within the Lord Chancellor’s Statement, which my noble friend has kindly repeated. He said:

“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’ recall to custody”.

It seems that we are in the present difficulty, where there is a strong demand not just from those related to the victim but more generally, because there was a press statement in late February and this information was given to the bereaved parents. That has inevitably led to further requests and demands for fuller statements, and a great reluctance to accept a perfectly legitimate point made by the Government and the Benches opposite: to give more information at this stage may well prejudice a fair trial of any charges that may be brought in due course against Jon Venables. In view of the points that I have just made, can the Minister explain why they issued a press statement about taking Jon Venables back into custody? Under the victim contact scheme, which is said to be statutory, is it an absolute requirement that bereaved parents are informed of the recall? Inevitably, they wish to speak to the press and pursue the matter further, and we are in the difficulty that we have at the moment, whereby nobody will be satisfied.

I am grateful to my noble friend. The answer to his question is, yes, I understand that we are bound to inform bereaved parents of the recall under the statutory victim contact scheme. That is why it was done. If I am wrong, I will come back to the House.

The initial short statement was made on a reactive basis. Once the press had become aware of the recall, the story would be published and it was thought best to confirm the recall. These are not easy decisions, but will the House consider what the position would have been if there had been total silence from the Government at that stage? A difficult position would have become worse.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the judge who made the order for the anonymity of these boys. I respectfully agree with everything that the Government have done so far. I have a rather different question. This young man may or may not be tried; he may or may not have committed offences. There is at least the possibility that he has committed no offence. Consequently, he may, therefore, be allowed again to be out on licence. I hope the Government will take carefully into account the enormous importance of protecting his anonymity now and if he is released. Those who wanted to kill him in 2001 are likely to be out there now.

The Government are extremely grateful to the noble and learned Baroness for her support for the way in which we have responded up to this stage. I thank her for that. At some stage this matter will, as the Statement said, come before the Parole Board. Of course, I answer her question in the affirmative. We agree completely with the noble and learned Baroness that Venables should retain his anonymity as much now as he did then.

My Lords, I have a layman’s question in the midst of all these experts. Is it not the case that, under normal circumstances, if a man is accused of a serious crime and goes to trial, the greatest precautions would be taken to avoid the jury becoming aware of his previous record of convictions for serious crime?

Yes, of course. It is one of the foundations of our criminal and legal system that, except in exceptional cases, you start from the position that the jury knows nothing about a defendant’s previous offences.

My Lords, when James Bulger was murdered in the Strand in Bootle in 1993, I was a Member of Parliament for Liverpool. I was struck at the time by the fortitude and dignity with which James’s mother, Denise Bulger—now Denise Fergus—bore that terrible, tragic loss. As we talk—as we do in your Lordships’ House this afternoon—about the importance of protecting our criminal justice system and the identity of both Venables and Thompson, can we reflect for a moment on the pain that has been experienced by that mother in her loss, and reflect on the sensitivity which the Lord Chancellor, the Justice Secretary, has rightly shown in saying that he would like at least to meet her to discuss what can be discussed? Can the Minister tell us a little more about when such a meeting might take place?

I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his intervention. He is right. The loss that this lady and James Bulger’s father have suffered, and will suffer for the rest of their lives, should never be forgotten. It is important to remember that at this time. My right honourable friend hopes to be able to meet Mrs Fergus in the course of this week but I cannot give any more details. It may not be able to happen. I do not know. I will just praise Mrs Fergus. She said in a television interview this morning that she certainly did not want any trial of Venables—if there were to be one—to be jeopardised by excessive publicity at this stage.

Many noble Lords have made the proper point that excessive publicity could jeopardise the validity of a trial, if such a trial is necessary. Would it not be ironic if the shrill and hysterical cries of tabloid editors brought this about? Would it not be proper for them to exercise a measure of self-denying ordinance in this matter? Further to that, does the Minister agree that there is a robustness and toughness in our jury system that, over the centuries, has allowed juries, somehow or other, to isolate and insulate themselves from even passionately held communal feelings; and that they have shown themselves able, in a thoroughly dispassionate and objective way, to bring about decisions that are based only on the evidence that has been tendered to them?

I agree with the noble Lord. It would indeed be ironic. That is why my right honourable friend’s Statement refers to fairness for the prosecution as well as for the defence. That is the right way to look at the fairness of a trial. It is also important to remember investigations that may be taking place at present when one considers how much should be said or not said. The noble Lord is exactly right about the jury system, too.

My Lords, I, too, declare an interest in that I acted for the Home Secretary in the proceedings brought by Jon Venables relating to the tariff in the English courts, including before the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and then in the European Court of Human Rights.

The Minister has carefully and fully explained that the limited information being published at the moment is due to the need to protect a fair trial if criminal charges were to be brought. I fully support what the Minister has said in relation to that matter. However, does he accept that different considerations would inevitably arise about what should be published if—I emphasise “if”—criminal proceedings were to be brought against Jon Venables? Does he also accept that different considerations would arise about what the public should be told if no criminal charges were to be brought, a decision were to be taken to that effect, and yet there were found to have been serious breaches of the conditions under which he was released from detention?

I am grateful to the noble Lord who has great experience in this field. All I can say to him in reply is that we believe we have taken the right attitude towards this matter given the circumstances up to this point. We will have to try to do as well if the situation changes.