Straw demands answers over 'freedom' appeal

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The Independent Online

The Home Secretary is asking the Chief Inspector of Prisons to explain why he "went beyond his terms of reference" in calling this week for the early release of the killers of James Bulger.

The Home Secretary is asking the Chief Inspector of Prisons to explain why he "went beyond his terms of reference" in calling this week for the early release of the killers of James Bulger.

Jack Straw is understood to be furious at comments by Sir David Ramsbotham in the New Statesman appealing for Jon Venables and Robert Thompson to be freed soon after they become 18 next August. A Home Office spokesman said: "The Home Secretary wrote to Sir David Ramsbotham yesterday [Thursday] asking to explain why he went beyond his terms of reference as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in making the comments attributed to him in an article in the New Statesman - he awaits a response."

The lawyer representing James Bulger's family said public confidence in Sir David had been "irreparably damaged" by his appeal. Sean Sexton, a solicitor in Liverpool, said: "I believe it was a grave error of judgement giving the interview. We need a chief inspector of prisons who has the respect of the Home Office and the public alike. I believe his position is now untenable."

But Sir David was supported by prison governors and penal reformers who said he had used the Bulger case rightly to draw attention to the poor conditions in young offender institutions, to which the two boys are due to be transferred shortly.

In the New Statesman interview, Sir David appealed to the authorities not to delay the release of Venables and Thompson. He said: "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 Tory home affairs spokeswoman, Ann Widdecombe, said Mr Straw should give Sir David a "very hard rap over the knuckles".

But Sir David received support from Chris Scott, the chairman of the Prison Governors' Association, who said he was within his rights to use a high-profile case to point out that many young offenders' institutions are "under pressure".

Paul Cavadino, policy director of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said that the prison system could wreck progress made in local authority secure accommodation.

James Bulger was abducted in Bootle, Merseyside, in February 1993. His body was found two days later. Venables and Thompson, who were ten at the time they killed the two-year-old, were given an eight-year tariff by their trial judge, a term increased to 10 years by Lord Taylor of Gosforth as Lord Chief Justice, and to 15 years by Michael Howard when he was home secretary.

Mr Howard's move was declared unlawful by the House of Lords. The European Court of Human Rights is due to rule in December on whether the boys received a fair trial and Mr Straw is awaiting that judgment before setting a new tariff.