Leading Article: Mary Bell: time to step back

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A NEW LAW to stop criminals profiting from their crimes should not be "beyond the wits of parliamentary draughtsmen", says the Attorney General, John Morris. Well, they are clever people, these parliamentary draughtsmen. Although there is already such a law, banning such cashing- in within six years of the crime, extending it is a tough assignment. It is a moral condundrum that would tax the wisdom of Solomon, not just the textual skills of a legal wordsmith.

Mary Bell has already given her name to a part of common law, the so- called "Mary Bell order", which prevents the identification of a child, in her case, her child, now that she has changed her name. Now the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Attorney General have combined to suggest that she should have an Act of Parliament named after her. Perhaps it should be called the Mary Bell (Profit from Crimes) (Prevention in Perpetuity) Act, 1998. It is disappointing that our political leaders should reflect our national confusions and hypocrisies rather than seeking to make sense of them and offering moral leadership.

Compare public attitudes to Mary Bell and Leslie Grantham. Bell, a deeply damaged child, became a murderer at the age of 11. Grantham, a soldier in Germany, shot a taxi driver dead during an attempted robbery. Her crime is still "live", 30 years on, capable of tainting anything that comes into contact with it, particularly money. His crime, committed at around the same time, is "spent", and only lends a faintly glamorous hue to his reputation as a hard-man actor. Sure, he is a good actor, and 405 episodes of EastEnders as Dirty Den would have made him a national figure anyway, but there was added cachet for his tabloid persona, that strange mixture of soap fiction and soap reality, from the fact that he was a convicted murderer. It would take a particularly skilled parliamentary draughtsman to devise a law which could identify and sequester that proportion of Mr Grantham's earnings which is attributable to the publicity generated by his crime.

The problem is that we are prone to sentimentality when it comes to salt- of-the-earth, gone-straight-now villains. "Mad" Frankie Fraser, not just a murderer but - in his day - an evil torturer and butcher, is advertising some drink or other. Anyone associated with the Krays or the Great Train Robbers is seen as a harmless reformed hoodlum, respectful of their mothers, who only ever hurt their own kind.

Mary Bell's crime still seems so evil because it is so hard to understand. Mr Grantham's crime, on the other hand, is easy to understand, a straightforward piece of villainy. Yes, her victims were children, and crimes against children are more abhorrent than those against adults. But the moral judgement in comparing the two crimes surely needs to focus on the ages of the perpetrators. Bell was herself a child. The extent of her culpability is arguable: we should of course be sceptical of her own account, as told to Gitta Sereny, of the abuse she suffered as a child - especially, in the light of what we now know about "recovered" memories, the sexual abuse. But Mr Grantham's culpability is clear-cut. He was an adult, when he knowingly shot an innocent man.

On any dispassionate reckoning, her crime is more "spent" than his. She should not profit from it - not that, in the broader sense, she has, having only succeeded in tipping herself and her daughter into misery. This should be an opportunity to reflect on our attitude to old crimes. Instead of giving tacit encouragement to tabloid harassments, the Government should be trying to lead the debate into cooler, more rational waters. It is true that time does not always heal, and that some crimes can never be forgotten and forgiven. In the worst cases, it is worth pursuing war criminals, 50 years on. It was also right to punish Eric Taylor, the 78-year-old Roman Catholic priest, convicted this week, who sexually abused children at his orphanage in the Sixties. It was right yesterday to send Edward Kelly down for life for kicking a man in the head. The judge did not like it, but the sentence was automatic under Michael Howard's "two strikes and you're out" law because Kelly had shot and injured someone in a robbery 19 years ago.

The most important lesson of the Mary Bell case is not that "crime should not pay". The lesson that matters is that rehabilitating criminals is a delicate and difficult business, which requires all of us, and politicians especially, to make considered moral judgements, case by case, rather than hiding behind popular cliches.