'Rehabilitation put in jeopardy' by Jon Venables' return to jail

Solicitor who represented the killer in 1993 says recall is 'absolute nightmare'
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Recalling Jon Venables to prison 17 years after killing two-year-old James Bulger is likely to be a severe setback to rehabilitating him, his former solicitor has said. Laurence Lee represented Venables, now 27, when he and Robert Thompson were sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1993 murder and abduction of James.

Venables and Thompson were, controversially, given new identities – including new names and national insurance numbers – when they were released in 2001 under licence conditions.

Mr Lee said yesterday that he feared the decision to recall Venables last week after a breach of his licence conditions risks destroying the work that has been done to reintegrate the child killer into society. "By sending him back to prison they have a tinder box on their hands," he said. "He has been living in the community with a new identity for nine years and by recalling him they have risked everything that has been achieved. Now every prisoner and prison officer will be trying to work out which of the recalls in the last week is Venables. It's an absolute nightmare."

Venables and Thompson killed James on Merseyside after abducting him at the Strand shopping centre in Bootle. The boy's battered body was found by children playing on a railway line more than two miles from the shopping centre.

Ministers provoked a bitter row with the family of the murdered boy last night by refusing to make public what Venables had done to merit being recalled to prison. The toddler's estranged parents, Denise Fergus and Ralph Bulger, were incensed and accused Justice Secretary Jack Straw of violating their rights as victims.

Mr Bulger, 43, angrily insisted he had a right to know how Jon Venables broke the terms of his life licence. He asked: "What has the Government got to hide?" He said he found out about Venables' recall just hours before it broke in the media on Tuesday evening despite ministers admitting Venables had been returned a week earlier.

A police officer and Home Office staff called at his home in Merseyside at 4pm on Tuesday to break the news to him.

Last night Mr Bulger said: "Without a doubt Venables is where he belongs but he should never have been let out in the first place. Knowing one of them is behind bars again is little comfort when they won't even tell us what he has done – it is one more kick in the teeth for James and his family. We fought to keep both of James's killers in prison.

"We went to the courts and told how it was not safe to release either of them but they did it anyway... We have a right to know why he is back in jail.

"With all the millions spent on their so-called rehabilitation as well as hiding their identities, I don't believe he will have been recalled for a minor incident."

As Venables awaits a parole hearing to confirm the decision to revoke his licence, there was speculation of what might have triggered the recall. Under the terms of his licence a criminal offence, contact with the Bulgers or a visit to Merseyside could have forced a return to custody. The recall would have been immediate if it involved an offence concerning a child. An unconfirmed report suggested he was involved in a fight.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds has been spent on the rehabilitation of the two killers. Rod Morgan, former chairman of the Youth Justice Board and HM Chief Inspector of Probation, called the prospects of Venables keeping his identity secret "negligible". "It's likely he is being kept in isolation in the hope of preserving his anonymity."

Mr Morgan said the recall would have included an element of discretion: "A probation officer would not have taken the decision lightly. It would have been confirmed by a senior probation officer."

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said he believed the final decision would have been taken at government level. "Even if he was arrested under a pseudonym, as soon as the arresting officer put the name into the computer it would have been flagged up."

Mr Straw, the Justice Secretary, said in a statement: "I'm sorry that I cannot give more information at this stage on the nature of the alleged breach... I would like to give that information but I'm sorry that for good reasons I can't and that's in the public interest."