Bulger killers freed under licence for life

The child killers who beat two-year-old James Bulger to death beside a Liverpool railway line in 1993 have been granted their freedom by the Parole Board after eight years in secure units.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, told the House of Commons yesterday that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were 10 years old when they committed murder, will be released on life licences. The pair, who will both be 19 in August, have been given secret identities and are likely to be freed almost immediately.

The announcement provoked an angry reaction from the dead boy's mother Denise Fergus, who said the Parole Board had been "sucked in by two devious killers".

She said: "James' life was taken in a way that no one could imagine, and for what? The murderers have walked away with a life of luxury, have been bought homes, given a bank account and 24-hour protection."

But Mr Blunkett told MPs that Venables and Thompson would be "subject to strict licence conditions and liable to immediate recall if there is any concern at any time".

The Home Secretary's announcement was welcomed by Paul Cavadino, director of the crime reduction charity Nacro, who said: "Though their crime was awful, eight years' detention is a heavy punishment for a child. No good can come of the incessant demand to extract the last ounce of punishment out of two boys who committed a terrible crime when they were seriously disturbed children."

Mr Blunkett said he would not be commenting on the arrangements for the release of the two killers, in line with a High Court injunction introduced to hide their identities.

He said: "The murder of young James Bulger was a terrible event for his family and the whole nation. But no public interest would be served by pursuing the perpetrators."

The Home Secretary said there was "a real and strong possibility that their lives would be at risk" if their anonymity was compromised.

The licences include conditions that Thompson and Venables do not attempt to contact the Bulger family nor each other. They will also be barred from entering Merseyside without the written consent of their probation officers.

The Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf had effectively ended the boys' tariff – the minimum period they must spend in custody – when he ruled last October that it would not benefit them to enter the "corrosive atmosphere" of a young offenders' institution. Venables and Thompson faced being moved from their local authority secure units, in which they have spent the last eight years and four months, into young offenders' institutions when they reached the age of 19.

The teenagers were granted an open-ended High Court injunction protecting their anonymity after leading judge Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, head of the family courts, ruled that they faced a "real possibility of serious physical harm and possible death from vengeful members of the public or from the Bulger family".

Yesterday's announcement follows separate two-day parole hearings for both youths at secret locations earlier this week.

Thompson's solicitor Dominic Lloyd said yesterday that his client had "changed as a person". Mr Lloyd said: "He has accepted responsibility for his part, he has shown great and real remorse."

Venables and Thompson tortured and killed their young victim after abducting him from the Strand shopping precinct in Bootle, Merseyside in February 1993. Mr Blunkett said: "I can well understand how distressing it is for James' family now to hear this news."

Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said the task facing the probation service would be a "massive challenge" and that "common sense decrees that lots of things can go wrong".

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