James Bulger's killers were not "intrinsically evil", Ed Balls said today, as he waded into the row over trying youngsters in adult courts.
The Schools Secretary said the Children's Commissioner's comments about the two-year-old's murder were "ill-advised".
Dr Maggie Atkinson described the killing at the weekend as "exceptionally unpleasant" but said it was wrong that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who were 10 in 1993 when they were charged with the boy's murder, were tried in an adult court.
She called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to 12, and her comments were condemned by James's mother Denise Fergus as "twisted and insensitive".
Reacting today, Mr Balls said he "disagreed" with Dr Atkinson's comments, but insisted she was independent of Government and it was her job to stand up for children and young people.
Referring to Mrs Fergus as Mrs Bulger, Mr Balls said: "I thought it was ill advised, not just for Mrs Bulger but for many people, the scars of what was done to James Bulger are very deep."
He said there needs to be criminal proceedings in place for children.
"In this case my sympathies are with Mrs Bulger, not the Children's Commissioner," he said.
Mr Balls did say he agreed with Dr Atkinson about labelling children as "evil."
"I think we have to be very careful about labelling any child as intrinsically evil. Children are very affected by what happens to them as they are growing up."
"I think what they did to James Bulger was evil, but I'm not willing to say the children were intrinsically evil."
Mr Balls said he believes in rehabilitation and helping a child to change and giving them a second chance.
It came after Baroness Butler-Sloss, the retired president of the High Court's family division, said the public would never accept 10-year-old murderers escaping punishment.
Speaking to The Times, Lady Butler-Sloss, who granted Venables and Robert Thompson new identities after their release from prison, said: "I would like to see a much more effective approach towards dealing with the 10 and 11-year-old serious offenders without putting them necessarily into secure accommodation."
She added: "I do not believe the public will, at the moment, stand for murderers of 10 years old being treated as if they are children and not having to face punishment.
"The way I would like to go forward is to keep it as it is for the moment, because of public opinion, but to make it much more difficult to send such children to prison."
The Government has already ruled out Dr Atkinson's proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years, saying children aged 10 and over do know the difference between "bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing".
Dr Atkinson described the killing as "exceptionally unpleasant" but said it was wrong that Thompson and Venables, who were 10 in 1993 when they were charged with the boy's murder, were tried in an adult court.
Responding to the comments, Mrs Fergus called for the commissioner to be sacked, saying: "This woman owes James and me an apology for her twisted and insensitive comments. Then she should resign or be sacked.
"To say that his killers should not have been tried in an adult court is stupid. They committed an adult crime - a cold-blooded murder that was planned and premeditated and they were tried accordingly."
Mrs Fergus added: "It is a shock to people like Dr Atkinson that children can be truly evil by 10.
"But it is a fact and I fear there will be more of them and we need laws to be tightened up so we can deal with them."Reuse content