Shine A Light

The Bulger case legacy: Institutional vengeance against children who kill?

A former British Government senior adviser reflects on the treatment meted out to the boys who killed James Bulger.

Malcolm Stevens
9 September 2013

As 10 year olds in 1993, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were convicted of the murder of 2 year old James Bulger in Bootle, Liverpool.

An extraordinary case by any standard and one which has captured the nation’s sympathy and wrath ever since.

Malcolm Stevens was the Government’s lead professional civil servant at the time, responsible for disordered adolescents, secure children’s homes and Youth Treatment Centres.

For eleven years he was the Home Secretary’s professional adviser for young offenders convicted of grave crimes (murder etc) and those detained during Her Majesty's Pleasure.

He was responsible for the cases of Venables and Thompson for the first five years of their detention – precisely where they were to be detained, levels of security, arrangements for education, health, and the detail of therapeutic and psychiatric supervision. His evidence (for the Government) was considered by the various courts of Appeal, including the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasburg.

From his extensive personal knowledge and professional background, Stevens argues that there are many lessons to be learnt from the woeful manner in which Venables’s first release on parole was planned and supervised from 2000 till 2010.

These lessons, says Stevens, have never been publically considered (in the context of a Serious Case Review for instance) but are as wholly necessary now in 2013 as they were in 2001 to ensure equal measures of support, supervision and surveillance to assure rehabilitation and public protection. Here's Malcolm Stevens:

The Bulger case is back in the news again.

This time because 31 year old Jon Venables is reported to have been released from prison on parole and once again under the supervision of a probation officer.

The last time this happened was back in 2001. The then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, just as other Home Secretaries before him, and since, seized the opportunity to be 'tough'. All politicians like to be 'tough' on something or other.

Blunkett reassured the country that he would take personal responsibility to ensure Venables was supervised properly!

He called for daily reports. By so doing he distorted the focus of the probation officer’s supervision task, from the surveillance and support of a then 21 year old who last saw normal everyday life through the eyes of a 10 year old, to the bureaucratic back-watching of writing and sending daily reports from a probation office in Lancashire to a red box in Westminster.

Presumably Blunkett thought that the depth of his political talent outweighed that of a Probation Service with a 100 years or so previous experience in handling serious cases like that.

Either way, that and the trial Judge's decision to allow publication of the two boys' names were two dreadful decisions, which caused and will continue to cause immeasurable difficulties for the process of rehabilitation.

Even Sir David Omand, a former senior civil servant and the government's eminent security services' adviser (but arguably with even less experience in criminal justice than Blunkett) recognised that, in his ‘Review of the post release supervision arrangements of Jon Venables'. (PDF)

His Review was set up after Venables had been sent to prison for child pornography offences which, along with a whole range of other serious breaches of his parole licence, were seemingly committed right under the nose of his supervising officer (and by inference, under the Home Secretary's nose too).

Sir David’s otherwise unreadable, civil service-speak report concluded that no one was really to blame for failing to notice Venables' descent into poverty, loneliness and despair, least of all Blunkett or any of the other subsequent Home Secretaries.

And with that obfuscation, the opportunity to learn key lessons about child protection, employment, and public accountability arising from his changed (but false) identity (passport application, employers criminal record checks, Schedule One Offender notification to social services, foreign travel etc) was compromised and lost.

For me, this was most unfortunate because the case has always been plagued, from the outset, by polarised ill-informed opinions and a media hungry for stories and half stories.

The Omand Report should and would have been an excellent opportunity to inspire the sort rational debate and reflection that has never really taken place. Not least for the purpose of reviewing precisely what works in resettling young offenders after long term detention and equally those for whom their identities have been officially ‘changed’.

Let's hope all is not lost. Otherwise Venables will become an inevitable member of the 'revolving-door club' to which the present Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, refers in his commitment to reducing the number of prisoners who return to prison time after time.

Grayling's vision is to see every prisoner on release having a mentor, a wise friend (not the Home Secretary then), employment and somewhere to live. He calls for a ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’.

He is right of course and apart from sending daily reports to the Home Secretary on every case, even Blunkett might agree with that!

But I doubt very much if that alone will be sufficient in the case of Jon Venables.

During the previous Home Secretary-led supervision regime, his supervisor failed to address:

  • - a long term relationship with a 30 year old woman, the mother of a young child
  • - trips to Liverpool
  • - alcohol abuse
  • - financial mismanagement
  • - drug and alcohol related offending
  • - unapproved foreign travel
  • - feelings of loneliness/isolation
  • - a growing interest in pornography (not to mention the substance of the child pornography charges)

Not all of these are easy to detect and the 2013 Parole Board will have received the assurance of a comprehensive Release Plan from the National Offender Management Service (as the Probation Service is now called), combining equal measures of support and surveillance together with a clear multi-agency model for delivery, governance and enforcement.

But there are two other matters of great significance to be addressed.

One was revealed by the Omand Report itself and the other is contained within the detail of the child pornography charges for which he was imprisoned for two years in 2010.

Firstly, the continuity of regular clinical supervision sessions with a named psychiatrist.

This was fundamental and, for me, a primary condition of his first Parole Licence. It was the continuation of what had been set up in November 1993. Venables was familiar with it and it was perfectly logical (as it is now) for that to continue after release in the community.

For administrative reasons (nothing whatsoever to do with Venables) these either stopped or simply fizzled out. This was extraordinary and quite why Omand failed to criticise successive Home Secretaries for failing to recognise that or allowing that dereliction of duty to continue remains equally mystifying.

Secondly, and linked to the point about clinical continuity, is the sexual interest Venables reveals about himself, in email dialogue with a distributor of child pornography (and a known paedophile).

Therein, Venables pretends to be a woman with a young daughter and offers her (the daughter) in exchange for receiving material relating to parents sexually abusing their children.

This is new and important information. If these are his interests, as he says they are, they may be relevant not just to those child pornography offences, but to the index offence itself - the tragic murder of Jamie back in February 1993 – and a potential clinical breakthrough.

Understanding behaviour is critical to being able to treat it and to the best of my knowledge, this is the first indication of anything like this – the potential indication of pre-existing, early life trauma. Hereto his background prior to 1993 has always been regarded as being remarkable only in that it was unremarkable for someone guilty of such extreme acts violence.

I sincerely hope that this fresh intelligence has been thoroughly assessed and actioned during his recent imprisonment and that the Parole Board has ensured that suitable arrangements are in place for continuing such psychiatric oversight and support back in the community together with a supervising officer whose attention is focussed on Jon Venables rather than a Secretary of State.

Only time will tell whether any of that will ever be sufficient for him to survive an insatiable media racing to ‘out’ him, or to counter the web of lies and new ‘identities’ upon which his life is now based.

I know of plenty of similar cases where youngsters have committed equally serious offences and have settled well after serving equally long periods of detention. They and the rest of us, ‘the general public’ or ‘society’ as politicians like to call us, have been well served by a competent probation service and they live orderly, productive and responsible family lives. In their cases, justice was well done and in my view, seen to be done, even though not in full view.

There is sadness in my conclusion, that this may not be possible in the case of Jon Venables — both from a personal perspective and for what it says about certain aspects of justice in the UK.

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