Children's Commissioner Dr Maggie Atkinson apologises over James Bulger killers comment

By Mark Bulstrode,Press Association
Wednesday 17 March 2010 12:29
Dr Atkinson said it was wrong that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were tried in an adult court
Dr Atkinson said it was wrong that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were tried in an adult court

The Children's Commissioner today said she had apologised to the mother of James Bulger following her comment about raising the age of criminal responsibility.

Dr Maggie Atkinson said she had sent a letter to Denise Fergus to express sorrow for the "hurt" that resulted from her remarks.

At the weekend, Dr Atkinson described James's killing 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 murder, were tried in an adult court.

During an interview on Radio 4's Woman's Hour today, she said: "There's a private letter of apology from me going to Denise Fergus for the hurt that was caused by the comments."

In an interview with The Times on Saturday, she said: "The age of criminal responsibility in this country is 10 - that's too low, it should certainly be moved up to 12; in some European countries it is 14."

The comments were condemned by Mrs Fergus as "twisted and insensitive".

Dr Atkinson moved to calm the controversy today, saying she had not intended to make a "call of any sort" in a wide-ranging interview with the newspaper.

"I am not saying that if a child is under the age of criminal responsibility when they commit an offence, they should not be punished," she said.

She said there were ways of punishing young offenders in "secure facilities" where the crimes can "be properly explained to them".

Dr Atkinson, asked on Woman's Hour how much a victim of crime such as Mrs Fergus should be in a position to influence policy, said: "That's really not for me to say. I know that ministers and senior officials are in close touch with Mrs Fergus."

Mrs Fergus's opinion continued to count as it was a horrific crime on a "defenceless toddler", she said.

"But I think policy-making is a more rounded piece of work than simply a set of opinions, whether they are mine or anybody else's," she said.

Dr Atkinson repeated her calls for a debate to be held on the age of criminal responsibility, highlighting the fact that it was higher in some other European countries.

But she added: "The media storm that broke on Saturday needs some time to cool before we can have a conversation."

The Government has already ruled out Dr Atkinson's proposal, saying children aged 10 and over do know the difference between "bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing".

Earlier this month, it emerged Venables had been returned to custody for allegedly breaching the conditions of his parole.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw has repeatedly refused to confirm the reasons behind the action and has said only that Venables faces "very serious allegations".

Venables and Thompson battered two-year-old James to death in Liverpool 17 years ago.

They were both released on lifelong licence in 2001 with new identities, requiring them to obey strict conditions such as not contacting each other or returning to the city where James was killed.

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