Anger at prisons chief's call to free Bulger killers

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A lawyer representing one of the boys who killed James Bulger today criticised the Chief Inspector of Prisons after his call for their early release.

A lawyer representing one of the boys who killed James Bulger today criticised the Chief Inspector of Prisons after his call for their early release.

John Dickinson, who represents Jon Venables, said comments by the Chief Inspector of Prisons Sir David Ramsbotham were premature. Sir David Ramsbotham said that Robert Thompson and Venables, who will both be 18 next August, should be released within a year. The pair were sentenced to life imprisonment when they were convicted of the killing in 1993.

Mr Dickinson said today Sir David should not have intervened before Home Secretary Jack Straw had set a minimum sentence, or tariff, that the pair should serve.

"I think it's premature at the moment because we are not in a position where release is being considered," Mr Dickinson told BBC Breakfast News.

"The Home Secretary has not as yet set a tariff and until that's done everybody involved is in a total abeyance. Everybody has personal views about the case and I think he is only expressing his personal views. Certainly it's a view that we consider premature."

Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe said Sir David had "exceeded his brief" and should be give a "very hard rap" over the knuckles by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw.

"It is absolutely not his job to comment on individual cases. He is supposed to inspect conditions in prisons and report on that," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"It is counter-productive to the case he is making, which I wouldn't necessarily make, but if he wants to make the case for their early release, then the last thing he should be doing is stirring up public outrage by this sort of statement.

"If I were Home Secretary I might feel very strongly motivated to make very, very clear comments to my Chief Inspector of Prisons who I think has exceeded his brief."

In an interview in the New Statesman, Sir David expressed admiration for Thompson, whom he has met, as "someone of some talent". He said: "Once they have reached the age of adulthood, I would hope they would get as early as possible a release in order to give them some chance of making a life."

The Chief Inspector's decision to involve himself in the debate over the future of the Bulger killers is likely to infuriate the Home Secretary.

Home Office ministers have already warned the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs that Sir David failed to base his statements on evidence and showed "a lack of understanding of both our policy and procedures".

Sir David is understood to have made his appeal for the release of the Bulger killers without prompting from his interviewer. He said: "There are two boys whose future is of concern to me: Thompson and Venables - the two who murdered James Bulger. They are 17. In theory they should be moving from the hands of the social services to the Prison Service. Where will they go and what will their reception be?"

Sir David called on the authorities not to delay the release of the pair. "The longer you leave it ... the less easy it will be for them. People say life shouldn't be easy for them in the light of what they did. I acknowledge that.

"But they did it at the age of nine [sic]. I can't remember all my emotions at that age, and I'd be horrified if I was still held accountable for them."

The Chief Inspector was especially generous in his praise for Thompson. He said: "I have met Thompson. I formed a considerable admiration for the way he is being looked after and the way he has responded. He got a lot of exams, and he is a very good artist. I saw his work, and he is someone of some talent. What are we going to do with them? I would not wish them to go to some of the institutions I have seen."

The two teenagers face being transferred to a young offenders' institution when they become 18.

James Bulger was two years old when he was abducted from the Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, Merseyside, on 12 February 1993. His battered body was discovered two days later on a railway line in nearby Walton.

Thompson and Venables, who were 10 years old at the time, were arrested days later. They were convicted of James's murder after a three-week trial. The case became one of the most notorious this decade.

The pair were given an eight-year tariff by their trial judge but this was raised, first to 10 years by the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Taylor of Gosforth and then to 15 years by the former Home Secretary Michael Howard. Mr Howard's decision was decreed illegal by a House of Lords ruling in 1997 but Mr Straw has yet to alter the tariff.

The sensitivity of the issue for the Government has been even greater since the European Commission of Human Rights ruled in March that the two boys had been unfairly treated during their trial in November 1993.