HOME SECRETARY Jack Straw has found time off from forcing through the Asylum Bill to extract an apology from the Chief Inspector of Prisons. Sir David Ramsbotham’s ‘offence’ had been to question what would happen to Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who killed two year old James Bulger in 1993.
‘Rambo’ Ramsbotham, as he is known, is hardly a wild left winger. He is a former adjutant general to the army and was appointed to his post by Tory Michael Howard. But, to Straw’s anger, he dared to say he was ‘concerned’ for the future of the two boys. They are now 17 and will soon become the responsibility of the Prison Service.
Straw wants to be associated with a thirst for hysterical revenge against James Bulger’s killers. He speaks as if the six years they have already spent caged up were simply a holiday camp jaunt. He shows not the slightest belief that people can improve themselves or reform their behaviour.
Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were ten year old children when they took part in the awful killing of James Bulger. When Robert was arrested he was found with his teddy bear, which he had recently given up as a Valentine’s Day present for his mother. Jon was still happy to have his bedroom papered with Thomas the Tank Engine wallpaper. The dock in court had to be built up so they could see the proceedings. During the evidence they sucked their thumbs, twiddled with paper, blinked and fidgeted as the incomprehensible charade went on round them.
Six months ago the European Commission of Human Rights released a preliminary report which found the boys had been denied a fair trial. Straw has placed himself firmly in the camp of those who think these boys are ‘plain evil’ and deserve to be shut away forever. A Labour home secretary should surely recognise at once that violence, extreme poverty and despair marked these children’s lives.
None of the boys’ parents had jobs. Within Robert and Jon’s families there was a long record of attacks on one another and suicide attempts. They were not particularly brutal families. But they were ones where people sometimes turned against one another or against themselves because there was nothing they seemed able to control. From their earliest days Jon and Robert felt condemned to a future even worse than the rotten world their parents had suffered.
Of course even such terrible circumstances only produce tragedies like James Bulger’s death one or twice in a generation. None of this was considered at the trial. The judge sentenced Jon Venables and Robert Thompson to be detained ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’. In his report he recommended they serve eight years. The Lord Chief Justice upped this to ten years. Tory Michael Howard, after a sustained campaign from the Sun to have the children locked up for life, then increased it to 15 years. The court of appeal later overturned his decision.
Perhaps Straw should listen to the foreman of the jury at Robert and Jon’s trial. A few months afterwards he said he regretted the murder verdict: ‘We should have gone back into court and said, yes, we do have a verdict: our verdict is that these young boys are in urgent need of social and psychiatric help.’ But Straw is more interested in the reaction of the right wing press. His lynch mob spirit went down well with the Daily Mail and the Sun. They are overjoyed that Straw has eagerly embraced more of the most backward Tory ideas.
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