Monday 25th March 2024

(1 month, 4 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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16:30
George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 206851 relating to a public inquiry into the James Bulger murder case.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I thank the Petitions Committee for granting this opportunity to debate the petition, which refers to the concerns that people, particularly James Bulger’s family, have about what has taken place since James’s brutal murder on 12 February 1993 and their belief that there have been failures in the system.

The petition, signed by 213,624 people, over 8,000 of whom are from Knowsley, was in place in 2018, but has been subject to a lengthy delay because of a Parole Board hearing in relation to further offences committed by one of James’s killers, known at the time as Jon Venables, which was judged to render any debate on the subject sub judice. Now that the Parole Board has rejected Jon Venables’s application for parole, I am grateful that this debate can now take place.

I intend to begin by reiterating the sickening and tragic circumstances of James’s murder. I apologise in advance that those listening will find it harrowing to hear this account of what happened, but it is necessary to remind ourselves why this matter is so visceral, and consequently there are questions, the answers to which are long overdue.

Jon Venables, then aged 10, together with another child of a similar age, abducted two-year-old James, took him to a railway line and savagely murdered him. Denise Fergus, James’s mother, described in her book “I Let Him Go” what occurred on the shopping trip to the Strand shopping centre in Bootle on the day that James was abducted. She said:

“The shopping centre was packed full…James couldn’t believe his luck that for once he was in among the crowd. I held on to his hand but inevitably he would run a yard or so ahead of me, always where I could see him.”

The shopping trip concluded with one last stop, a butcher’s, which is where the abduction took place. In her own words, she describes in the book what then occurred:

“There has been so much written about what happened…and so many opinions given, but I want to make one thing clear: I absolutely did not leave my baby outside the butchers on his own—I would never have done that. He was with me and holding my hand as we went inside. The only time I let go of his hand was to pay for the chops I had bought, and he was standing right beside me. I picked out the meat I wanted and took my bag from my shoulder, got my purse out, opened it to count the…money and, when I looked down, James was gone.”

She goes on:

“There were rumours that circulated afterwards that I had been shoplifting with my mum. Firstly, I have never stolen anything in my life and, secondly, my mum wasn’t even with me on that day. If extra proof was needed, my whole shopping trip was captured and examined frame by frame once the police went through edited CCTV footage. It clearly shows that before 3.39pm I was shopping and after 3.39 my world came crashing down as I frantically tried to find my boy.”

Two days passed, with James’s family understandably in extreme distress as the police and family members searched for James, having found additional CCTV footage that showed he had been taken away by two older boys. On the Sunday following James’s abduction, Denise was called to attend a police station. After an agonising 40-minute wait, one of the police officers investigating the case, Geoff McDonald, told her, “We’ve found him, and it’s not good news.”

As the MP for the area, I was as appalled as everyone else locally, but the wave of public horror was nothing compared with the trauma experienced by James’s family. To lose a child at any time goes against the natural order and against the expectations of any parent, but to do so in such harrowing circumstances is indescribable.

Subsequently, the two boys who had abducted and killed James, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, were arrested, prosecuted and found guilty. During the ensuing years, many questions and frustrations about how matters have since been dealt with have been raised. I will refer to some of those questions later. In the meantime, I want to place on record a statement that Denise has helpfully provided me with:

“'Honourable Members, I ask you with a mother’s heart to consider the questions and the pleas I have laid before you. Try to understand that no mother can simply accept that errors were made or that crucial facts were brushed under the carpet in the case of my child’s murder. For 31 years, I have fought tirelessly—not because it will bring my precious James back, but because he, and every child like him, still deserves justice.

This isn’t just about the past; it’s about the future. It’s about ensuring that no other family has to endure a similar ordeal, that no other child’s life is undervalued by the justice system. We have the power to make changes, to right the wrongs, and to honour the memory of those we’ve lost by protecting the innocent.

Please, I beseech you, take these matters to heart. Consider the impact of these errors and omissions, not just on my family, but on the integrity of our justice system. James’s voice was silenced too soon, but through your actions, his legacy can be one of change and hope.”

As I mentioned earlier, I have some questions for the Minister, and look forward to his response. First, why was the evidence gathered by Merseyside police indicating that Thompson and Venables sexually assaulted James prior to killing him not presented at the trial at Preston Crown court, or to the Parole Board when Venables was released in 2001 and again in 2013? Who made those decisions?

Secondly, Venables’s 2010 conviction for possession of extreme child pornography proves his sexual interest in children. Was that sexual interest in children missed by all the experts, or was it known? Thirdly, was proper consideration given to the attempted abduction of another child earlier on the day that James was murdered—indicating premeditation—at the trial and, later, at the parole hearings? Fourthly, were Thompson and Venables pronounced rehabilitated in order to avoid them entering adult custody, without proper regard to the potential risk posed to children? What representations did Lord Chief Justice Woolf make to the Parole Board?

Before I conclude, I would like to cover a couple of points. First, although not directly related to the petition, a few comments in some of the media coverage of events at the time of James’s murder and since have been unacceptably intrusive in respect of family members. At the time, in breach of the guidance from the then Press Complaints Commission, the intrusion into private grief was callous and cruel. In principle, there is a remedy available by means of a formal complaint on those grounds. However, many people affected are understandably wary of using that, as a published apology in print is usually small, hidden and accompanied by a repetition of the original intrusion. Breaches should incur heavy penalties on media outlets.

Secondly, the question I referred to earlier exposed the fact that the initial response, whether judicial or on the part of Departments, often becomes increasingly opaque and confusing as new information comes to light. A good example of that problem can be found in the Government’s response to the petition, which unfortunately is both overly defensive and vague about how the transparency of Parole Board decision making could be increased and how its decisions could be challenged.

In February 2010 Jon Venables was recalled into custody, following which Sir David Omand was commissioned to conduct a review into the handling of the Jon Venables case between 2001 and 2010. Sir David concluded that the case management of Jon Venables’s case more than met the national standards laid down for the supervision of serious offenders in level 3 multi-agency public protection arrangements. He further concluded with reference to the further serious offence:

“Events classed as low probability do unfortunately… happen despite everyone’s best efforts—that is the difference between low risk and no risk.” I should say that I know Sir David personally and have great respect for his public service over the years. His conclusions, however, inevitably reflect the narrow terms of reference that he was set. As the helpful House of Commons Library debate pack points out, for example, the terms of reference

“did not extend to Venables’ time at the Red Bank secure unit”,

and the review

“did not, therefore, examine allegations reported in the press”

that Venables had had an inappropriate relationship

“with a female member of staff at the unit”.

The petition calls for a public inquiry to best address the issues that remain to be cleared up. On the basis of the Government’s response to the petition, regrettably, it seems unlikely that a public inquiry will be granted. If I am correct in that assumption, I would ask the Minister to consider what alternative might be appropriate. I do not expect that he will be in a position to do so today, but I urge him to give the matter serious consideration, because it is important that those questions and concerns are answered as fully and comprehensively as possible.

Gordon Henderson Portrait Gordon Henderson (in the Chair)
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Before I call Members to speak, I remind them that there is a court injunction regarding the release of information related to James Bulger’s murderers, including information about their current identity and whereabouts, and I ask Members to be mindful of that.

16:43
Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)
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For the bulk of my time I am going to dedicate my voice, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth) also did in part, to the voice of Denise Fergus, James’s mother. Like my right hon. Friend, I have a statement from her with me:

“Honourable Members of the House of Commons, my name is Denise Fergus, and I am present today as a mother whose heart has been shattered and whose life has been forever darkened by the loss of my dear son, James. For over 30 years, I have carried the unbearable weight of his absence, a void that can never be filled, a pain that never subsides.

When James was so cruelly taken from us, the justice system promised retribution and rehabilitation for his killers. Yet the sentences they received meant they would never face the reality of an adult prison, never undergo the rigorous rehabilitation that such a heinous crime demands. As time passed, I learned more about the circumstances of my son’s case, details that, had they been considered, could have significantly altered the course of justice.

I was in the depths of despair, unable to attend the trial, feeling as though I had been cast adrift in an endless night. The world around me was devoid of light, and even if I had been present in the courtroom, the words would have passed through me, leaving no mark, for I was consumed by grief.

The repeated reoffending of one of James’s killers, the last time being six years ago, reignited my fight for justice. I had always feared he posed a threat to society, and my worst fears were confirmed when he was convicted once more. It was then that I requested the full details of the post-mortem report, bracing myself for the truth I had long suspected—that my little boy had suffered injuries of a sexual nature. The confirmation left me numb, yet it also steeled my resolve to fight harder than ever to ensure that such a person would never walk free to endanger another child, another family.

There are so many unanswered questions that haunt me. Why were critical aspects of my son’s case overlooked? Why did it seem as though the most damning evidence was swept aside? Why? In the hope that I would never seek the truth? Why was the attempted abduction charge not given to the jury to consider? I am here to say that I will never stop fighting for James. He cannot stand up for himself, so it is my duty as his mother to be his voice, his champion.

I implore you, Members of the House, to hear my plea. We must scrutinise the errors that were made, the sentencing that fell short, the conduct at Red Bank House, and the reports that were omitted from the Ormand review—reports that Sir David Ormand knew of but did not disclose. I read these omissions with a heavy heart, knowing that they represent a failure in the pursuit of justice for my son.

No parent should endure what I have. The loss of a child is an unspeakable tragedy, but to know that justice has not been fully served deepens the wound. I ask you to stand with me, to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, and to uphold the principle that every child’s life is precious and deserving of justice. Thank you for listening to a mother’s enduring love and her unyielding quest for truth.”

Those are Denise’s words. I have got to know Denise personally over the last weeks and months, and I seek to lend my voice to her campaign for getting to the truth and accessing justice. It is one thing for us all to read about Jon Venables being recalled to prison in the newspapers; it is a completely different thing to live every single day in fear, waiting for the next piece of news. That is what is written on Denise’s face when I sit opposite her.

In 2018, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley tabled a parliamentary question about breaches by Thompson and Venables between 2001 and 2018. A copy of that question is provided in the very helpful debate pack that was collated by the House of Commons Library before this debate. The answer to that question revealed that 70 breaches of their life orders had been found in the 17 years between 2001 and 2018.

Denise tells me that the issues that should be considered include how the Omand review’s terms of reference did not include the time when Venables is alleged to have had sexual relations with somebody who was meant to be in charge of him, which my right hon. Friend highlighted, and the previous abduction. She also tells me that when breaches have occurred, she has not been told about them in the manner promised to her by all sorts of standards set out for victims. Actually, when Venables was last recalled, Denise was not informed until a week later, and that was only because it had been in the press. The standard of communication that should have been afforded to her and the rest of James’s family in this case has not been met.

I have dealt with many family members of people who suffered murder. When a person suffers such a heinous crime, each and every time that the state does not live up to an obligation that it promised the victim it would fulfil, the belief that the case was handled well in the first place is eroded a bit. Each and every time something has gone wrong in this case, over the last however many decades, it is a reminder that things were missed, that things were not covered in the court case, that things did not happen. We then wonder why families call for a public inquiry. It is because things got missed. We all know from the many cases that we have handled that things get missed, and when things get missed once, they get missed again in the future. In that future, since James’s death, things have been missed in this case.

The glare of all the media is on this case. I handle cases where nobody knows the name of the little boy or girl who was killed, and I suspect that Denise Fergus is getting a better service than most. The point of having a public inquiry and truth and justice-seeking reviews is not just to get retribution, or to satisfy and tick a box for a grieving family. It is to ensure that our systems are correct. My own child is sat in this room with us today. I want to know that when I am not with him, systems are in place to ensure that the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. For so many years, James’s mother has felt that she was the last to know, that she was not informed, and that she had to find out, years after the fact, about the sexual violence. It is no wonder then that we end up at a point where a public inquiry is requested. It is the very least that they deserve.

16:53
Paula Barker Portrait Paula Barker (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Henderson. I thank my constituency neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth), for bringing forward this debate today, as well as the thousands of constituents who signed the petition to have this debate heard.

The horrific abduction, torture and subsequent murder of James Bulger over 31 years ago shocked the nation, particularly my home city of Liverpool where it took place. It remains an act of unimaginable evil and something that continues to horrify the people of my city and beyond. I commend the bravery and persistence of James’s mum, Denise Fergus, and her husband, Stuart, in keeping their son’s legacy alive in their campaign for truth, justice and transparency.

I am not legally trained in criminal law, but as a human, a citizen and a mother myself, I cannot help but assert that it is in the interest of the public and their safety, particularly that of young children, that Jon Venables should remain behind bars. I welcome the decision of the Parole Board late last year to refuse Venables’s release, which said he could not be trusted outside of jail. While there is no doubt the same issue will rear its ugly head in a couple of years’ time, I hope that common sense will once again prevail. Let us not forget that Venables is indeed a danger to the public, having been found to have reoffended not once, but twice. I am a firm believer in rehabilitation, but I also acknowledge that not everyone can be rehabilitated, and I think that this is a case in point.

Kym Morris, the chair of the James Bulger Memorial Trust, summarises the demands of the campaign effectively when she says that

“Victim families should have full access to all of the transcripts, evidence, everything. If you went to a trial, you would have access to all of this, so what difference does a parole hearing have? That’s what we should do going forward.”

I know that the Ministry of Justice is in some ways alive to that call. Since 2022, allowing victims some access to observe an offender’s hearing has been trialled, with a view to rolling out the scheme more widely in the future. I urge the MOJ to continue moving at pace in overseeing the delivery of the “Parole Board Strategy and Business Plan 2023-2025”, which specifically sets out the Parole Board’s aims in relation to openness and transparency for the next two years and for the next five years. For the next two years, the following steps are outlined:

“Victims able to observe parole hearings with greater ease across the country… Panels are trained and have the necessary guidance to ensure victim observed hearings are effective… Support evidence-based research and analysis of both our current operating model and impact of reforms”.

Then, for the next five years—a period that is crucial for securing lasting change—these steps are set out:

“A more court like operating model”,

and

“Redacted release decisions published in all cases by the secretariat under delegated authority.”

However, that is not what happened last year, when the Parole Board denied a public hearing into Venables’s parole decision. That was hugely disappointing, given that many people believe that the necessary adjustments could have been made to comply with the original High Court injunction regarding Venables’s identity. Of course I respect the independence of the Parole Board, but I have no doubt that wholesale cultural and operational shift at the political level is needed to deliver the changes that are required to give confidence and reassurance to victims and their families.

The historical failings in the system with regard to Venables are clear, and retrospective transparency can and must be applied. The Omand review in 2010 did little to generate confidence in the original decision in 2001 regarding Venables’s release. The mitigating circumstances leading up to his release and any potential influence of others at Red Bank who allegedly engaged in gross misconduct must call into question the original decision. Why did experts consider Jon Venables to have been rehabilitated? I make no personal judgment on that decision, but I find it staggering to assert that, by denying a public inquiry, lessons cannot be learned.

I support a public inquiry. Those in power trot out the usual lines—“It’s too expensive, time-consuming and resource-intensive. There’s nothing to see here.” Even after events like Hillsborough, the penny does not seem to have dropped that victims might—just might—refrain from calling for such inquiries if the system and public sector agencies afforded victims transparency in the first place. If there is “nothing to see here,” let us have all the facts laid bare. The number of signatures on this petition demonstrates the clear strength of feeling on this matter, with more than 3,000 signatories from my Liverpool, Wavertree constituency alone.

Our city of Liverpool remembers James, with fondness for the beautiful little boy he was, and with sadness for the fact that he did not get to live a life that was full and happy or to fulfil his ambitions and potential. That potential was sadly taken away from him and his family in the most unimaginable and horrific of ways. To lose a child in such circumstances should never happen; for his family to still be fighting for justice 31 years later should never have happened and is unbelievably cruel. I hope that Ministers listen today. Once again I pay tribute to the bravery and persistence of Denise and Stuart Fergus and their wider family, as they fight for justice in memory of James.

16:54
Peter Dowd Portrait Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth) for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall, and James’s family for initiating this petition, signed by 213,000 people, of whom 5,000 are in my constituency. The New Strand shopping centre in my constituency is where James was abducted from; he was subsequently abused and murdered. The case still resonates with my constituents, as it does across the country, but particularly in Merseyside. I pay tribute to James’s family for their bravery in coming here today and thank them for that.

I do not have a great deal to add to what has been said by my right hon. Friend and by my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker). They are, as ever, eloquent in outlining clearly and unambiguously what should happen. They have set out the context and they have set the scene; I really hope that the Minister will listen.

I will not take up much time, as I do not want to dilute what has already been said. The Inquiries Act 2005 is in place and provides the capacity for inquiries to be set up, because in the past, we did not have enough inquiries into the challenges to justice that people have. Whatever that inquiry is, we are here to ensure that people get justice. In that regard, the Inquiries Act enables us as a society to consider and respond to events of major public concern. Some 213,000 people signing a petition, including, as I said, 5,000 people in my constituency, indicates the public concern about this case.

In 2017, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee expressed concern about the ability of Parliament—hon. Members—to influence, potentially, when a public inquiry is called, and to some extent our oversight of it. That is our job, and we are here today to ask, demand, insist—whatever term we use—that the Government set up a public inquiry.

It is for a public inquiry to consider all the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley and my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley and for Liverpool, Wavertree, so I will not prejudge. We have heard a list of issues that such an inquiry should look into, and I wholeheartedly agree. My job is to back up my colleagues and say that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has asked for this. The House of Lords has also asked for a more significant ability to intervene in relation to calling for public inquiries, as has the Institute for Government. Those bodies do not throw such recommendations and suggestions around for the fun of it, but because of our experience in this country, time after time, of a lack of justice for victims.

I therefore wholeheartedly support the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley for this public inquiry; I also absolutely and unequivocally support the right of the family to call for—to demand—this inquiry; and I support my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley and for Liverpool, Wavertree, who are absolutely fantastic in their pursuit of such issues. I thank them too.

17:03
Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth) for leading the e-petition debate calling for a public inquiry into the conduct and management of those responsible for the death of young James Bulger, as well as, of course, the case management itself.

The abduction and murder of James shocked the nation to its very core. Many of us can still visualise the CCTV film of his abduction and the shattering events that took place 31 years ago, in 1993. I know that I speak for the Opposition and the whole House in saying that the crimes of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were absolutely horrifying. It is impossible, as a dad and grandad, to even come close to imagining the pain, suffering and trauma that Denise Fergus and Ralph Bulger have had to go through and will continue to go through for the rest of their lives. Our thoughts and most sincere sympathies remain with them and their wider family. We have considerable respect for the dignity shown in their grief.

The way that Venables’s case was handled continues to be of interest and concern to the public at large. The e-petition was signed by 213,000 people and was in place in 2018, as referenced by my right hon. Friend, but has been subject to delay because of a Parole Board hearing, which rendered any debate on it sub judice. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the way he spoke with sympathy and empathy while demanding answers to a series of precise and sensitive questions. Denise was able to speak directly through him and through my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips).

As we have heard, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were 10 years old at the time of the murder. They were sentenced to detention during Her Majesty’s pleasure, a life sentence for children who commit murder. The case was subject to early scrutiny about the length of the tariff; eventually, in October 2000, the Lord Chief Justice ruled that the tariff should expire immediately, noting that any decision on when Thompson and Venables should be released would be for the Parole Board.

Venables was held in a secure children’s unit, Red Bank community home, until his release under licence in 2001. As Denise said in her statement, he had not by then served time in an adult prison. He was then granted a new identity and a lifetime High Court injunction was issued to restrict the publication of information about the new identity. But Venables, as we have heard, was recalled to custody in February 2010 and convicted in July that year of the possession of indecent images of children. His crimes and convictions led to all manner of questions about how he had been managed and supervised. Both the probation service and the Parole Board operate on two basic principles: public safety and public trust. They exist to keep us safe, to protect us from dangerous criminals and to ensure that the public, especially victims, have faith in the justice system.

In response, the Justice Secretary commissioned Sir David Omand to review the Venables case from 2001 to 2010. The review’s terms of reference did not extend to Venables’s time at the Red Bank secure unit. It did not, therefore, examine allegations reported in the press—as we have already heard—that Venables had a relationship with a female member of staff at the unit. The Omand review concluded that the case was managed “appropriately” by the relevant authorities. He said,

“I have established that despite the continuing low underlying risk assessment significant resources were applied by the probation service and Home Office (and then by the Ministry of Justice after the machinery of government changes in 2007) to this case, allowing case management to much more than meet the national standards laid down for the supervision of serious offenders at the MAPPA 3 level.”

He further concluded that the professional assessments were appropriate, given the evidence available at the time. He said that Venables

“did go on to commit a further serious offence, but that does not in itself mean that the assessments made throughout the case of the low risk he posed to the public were wrong headed. I conclude that they were the correct professional assessment on the evidence then available. Events classed as low probability do unfortunately sometimes happen despite everyone’s best efforts—that is the difference between low risk and no risk.”

Venables was again released under licence in August 2013, but was recalled to custody a second time in November 2017 for the same offence. He received a 40-month period of imprisonment and remains in prison, having been refused parole at private hearings held in September 2020 and December 2023.

The e-petition mentions specific concerns around why Venables was judged to have been rehabilitated. While the probation and Parole Board documents are not in the public domain, it is clear that the public would question how the decision was made, especially in 2013 when Venables was again released from prison, only to be recalled. Where possible, the Government should be transparent about the decision-making process, especially the adequacy of the risk assessments carried out; how a judgment was reached about his rehabilitation; and, equally, how the judgment of rehabilitation was challenged and cross-examined.

Although we had the Omand review in 2010, which looked in detail at how Venables was managed and overseen on his first release, we have not had a similar review about his release in 2013 or subsequent recall to prison. That is why a number of questions remain outstanding, including about how the judgment was made in 2013 that it was safe to release him. My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley highlighted the dozens of other breaches of Venables’s licence conditions. Were they not a sign that this guy should not have been released?

The probation service has a vital duty and role to play in public protection, especially for those being released from prison having committed the most serious offences, such as murder. Although I am not commenting on the specific nature of Venables’s recall in 2017, we on the Opposition side of the House have long been concerned about the gaps in our criminal justice system, which mean that dangerous offenders are being released, are not being properly monitored or assessed by the probation service, and are going on to commit further serious offences. That poses a huge risk to public safety and undermines faith and confidence in our justice system.

We know that our probation service has been through shake-up after shake-up over the last 14 years, including privatisation in 2014; the cutting of senior and experienced staff; and record-high workloads for the staff. In the Minister’s response, I hope that he can outline what action the Government are taking to ensure that our probation service and its staff are equipped, trained and supported to manage high-risk offenders better and how we can ensure that the public, especially victims and their families, can have faith in them.

As hon. Members know, the Parole Board rejected an application for Jon Venables to be released from prison last year. The Parole Board operates independently of the Government and cited a number of factors when it rejected his application to be released. I note that in reporting that decision, the Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), mentioned the Government’s continued commitment to reforming the Parole Board. The Parole Board needs to ensure that it protects the safety of the public and that the public, especially victims and their family members, have faith in its decisions. For that reason, we have long supported and called for a mechanism whereby the Secretary of State can query a Parole Board decision, with an independent court acting as a backstop. We believe that that is a fair and practical reform that will build trust in the Parole Board and equally allow for the continued separation between elected politicians and our judiciary.

I conclude by reiterating the complex and sensitive nature of what we are here to discuss, and I look forward to the Minister shining further light on the case following the questions posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley and by the family through my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley, for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) and for Bootle (Peter Dowd). As was said in Denise’s statement, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley put on record, this is about ensuring that no other family has to endure a similar ordeal. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

17:13
Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Henderson. At the outset, may I join right hon. and hon. Members in acknowledging the dedication and determination of Mrs Denise Fergus, James’s mother, in campaigning on this petition and successfully securing a debate on this hugely important matter through the Petitions Committee? Sadly, in this Chamber and in the main Chamber we are, on occasion, called upon to debate deeply sombre, traumatic and saddening matters, but it is right that we do so and that we cast that light upon them. I am grateful for the tone adopted by all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken; it is appropriate that this debate has been conducted in that manner.

I pay tribute to Denise Fergus for her and her family’s tireless and dignified campaign to obtain justice for her son James, who was so cruelly taken from her in February 1993 when he was just two years old. We have heard from the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth) about the circumstances, which to this day remain shocking and harrowing. No one can fail to be shaken by them still, even after the passage of time.

The murder of James was a crime that rightly shocked the nation and continues to do so. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), highlighted the harrowing images on CCTV. I recall seeing those images when I was still at school, many years ago. I recall the dreadful inhumanity—the evil—that we all realised had taken place. I remember not just the horrendous events themselves, but the shock that they were carried out by two 10-year-old boys.

I am grateful for the recognition in the course of this debate that many of the decisions made in the context of the case were made by independent bodies: the Crown Prosecution Service, the sentencing judge and the Parole Board. I will turn to that point in a moment. As has been said, Thompson and Venables were released in 2001 on the recommendation of the Parole Board, subject to a lifelong anonymity order granted by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, to which you quite rightly drew our attention, Mr Henderson.

Thompson has remained in the community on life licence without further offence. However, Venables has twice been recalled to custody and subsequently convicted of further offences involving the possession and sharing of illegal images of children: first in 2010, when he was sentenced to 24 months’ imprisonment, and then, having been re-released on the direction of the Parole Board in 2013, again in 2018, when he was sentenced to 40 months’ imprisonment. Since Venables became eligible to be considered for release on life licence, following recall, the Parole Board has found on three successive occasions, most recently in December last year, that it remains necessary on the grounds of public protection that he remain confined to custody.

Against that background, I think anyone could well understand the concerns surrounding the first release decision in 2001 and, specifically, understand and appreciate the call for a public inquiry. However, although I fully appreciate the significant concerns that have been expressed and the strength and sincerity of feelings on the issue, I am afraid that I am not today in a position to announce a public inquiry. I appreciate that that will be disappointing to those in the Public Gallery, as well as to Opposition Members. If the right hon. Member for Knowsley considers it helpful, I am open to meeting him and his hon. Friends to have a further conversation about the matters that we are debating.

As hon. Members have highlighted, the then Government commissioned the Omand review, which was published on 23 November 2010. The review did not question the decision that the Parole Board made in recommending Venables’s release in 2001, based on the evidence at that time. The review looked in considerable detail at the management of Venables and made detailed recommendations to address the shortcomings in supervision that had marked some of that period. The subsequent period of supervision, from 2013 to 2017, was consistently tight; in fact, it was the means by which the further offending came to light and a successful prosecution could subsequently be mounted.

I fully understand why the nature of that further offending gives rise to significant concerns as to whether the decisions to release Venables were defective. It may be helpful if I briefly provide a little more explanation about how the Parole Board determines whether prisoners serving life or other indeterminate sentences are released. For any offender sentenced to life imprisonment, a minimum period for that imprisonment is set for the purposes of punishment and deterrence. After the minimum term has been served, by law the prisoner may continue to be detained in custody only so long as their risk requires it—in other words, unless the prisoner’s risk can be effectively mitigated and managed in the community by means of the obligations and restrictions of a post-release licence.

Where it issues a release direction, the Parole Board is concluding that the probation service and partner agencies, taking account of the powers that arise from a post-release licence, have the means to mitigate remaining risks and so prevent the public from being exposed to undue risk. Obviously any such decision involves a judgment, and regrettably the Parole Board can never be completely certain that any prisoner it releases will not reoffend. When the Parole Board determined in 2001 that Thompson and Venables were safe to be released, it took account of risk assessments and reports provided by various professionals. By the time of their release, each had completed their minimum term.

When Venables was recalled to custody in 2010, the then Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, asked Sir David Omand, the former permanent secretary to the Home Office, to undertake a comprehensive review of the management of Venables and set the terms of reference for that review. A version of the review was published in November 2010; I say “version” because, as hon. Members will be aware, it was redacted to comply with the terms of the court anonymity order. The redacted version is available on gov.uk.

In his review Sir David noted that Venables had been detained at Red Bank secure unit, run by St Helens Borough Council. During his time at Red Bank, an allegation was made about an incident involving Venables. I am aware of the press reports speculating about the nature of that incident, but I have seen no contemporaneous official account of it. I appreciate that this will potentially be frustrating for those listening, but I therefore believe that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the basis of the press reports alone.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
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I do not think anybody here would expect that; we are not judge and jury in this building. However, as the Minister said, Jack Straw was the last person to ask for a review. If, as the Minister has outlined, he cannot commit to a full public inquiry, is there not a case for another review to look into not only Red Bank, but the period of further mistakes since 2010? All we have currently is a review covering 2001 to 2010. Surely there were errors made post that period that need some transparency.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady. At the risk of potentially damaging her reputation, let me say that I have huge respect for her; I did a lot of work with her when I was the victims Minister and she held the role of shadow safeguarding Minister. I appreciate her point. Without prejudice to any decision made, I have made the offer to meet with the right hon. Member for Knowsley. I am happy to have a conversation; I hope the hon. Lady knows from our previous interactions that I do not like to raise expectations that I cannot meet, so I do not intend to do that, but I will have a conversation with the right hon. Gentleman.

The Home Office asked an experienced former prison governor, Arthur de Frisching, to look into the incident at Red Bank. It appears, some years after the event, that no formal reason was found to publish a report into the incident at the time. St Helens Borough Council observed in a public comment that all allegations had been thoroughly investigated, but no copy of that could be found in the archives of either the Home Office or the Ministry of Justice. While the terms of reference for the review began with the preparations for the release of Venables, Sir David stated that he had found nothing in the material that he considered to cast doubt on the fundamental judgments made by the Parole Board at the time that the statutory release test was deemed to be satisfied.

Venables was recalled when police officers, having arrived to escort him to a new address on account of concerns for his safety, caught him trying to remove the hard drive from his computer. That led to an investigation, which resulted in his first conviction for downloading and sharing illegal images of children. In Sir David’s report, he made a number of recommendations designed to strengthen the future management of Venables and indeed of Thompson. Those recommendations recognised that the primary responsibility for supervising Venables lay with the probation service, working closely with the police and other relevant agencies under the statutory MAPPA arrangements. In Venables’s case, that meant the key actions to manage his risks being discussed and agreed at formal meetings attended by senior representatives of the probation service and police services, as well as other highly qualified specialists such as psychiatrists.

When Venables was re-released in 2013 at the direction of the Parole Board, the board set the robust licence conditions that it considered necessary to enable the probation service and its MAPPA partners to manage him effectively, mitigate his risk and help to protect the public. There was now a clear difference between the way he had been managed in the period from 2001 to 2010, as covered by the Omand review, and the way he would be managed from 2013 onwards.

It is deeply regrettable that Venables was discovered in 2017 to have been once again downloading and sharing illegal images of children. However, unlike in 2010, his offences were quickly discovered as a direct result of the monitoring and supervision that had been put in place, and there were immediate consequences, with his return to custody. As I have set out, the Parole Board has now concluded three times that Venables remains too high-risk to be released on life licence. For his most recent review, my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary submitted an overarching Secretary of State view recommending that Venables remain in prison on account of substantial concerns over his risk of reoffending and the risk of harm to the public.

I will endeavour to respond to the specific questions from the right hon. Member for Knowsley with as much information as I can, because I believe that that is important. Before I do so, I note that the hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and for Bootle (Peter Dowd) have highlighted, in their different ways, the impact that such matters can have on victims’ trust in the system. As a former victims Minister working with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley and others, I saw that at first hand. That transparency, that trust and that engagement are central to building the confidence of those who are or have been victims of crimes in the system.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley talked about notifications—or the lack thereof—of breaches. My understanding is that the supervising agencies concluded, based on a number of those breaches, that the threshold for recall to custody was not met; a recall therefore did not take place. The notification comes where a recall takes place, so because the probation officers and others did not deem the threshold for recall to have been met, there would not have been a notification. However, I am happy to take that point away and reflect on it further. The hon. Lady and I were on a Bill Committee in which we looked at the victims code, notifications and victim liaison officers; I am very happy to have another reflection on that.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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Will the Minister give way?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I will answer two further points and then give way to the shadow Minister.

On transparency, we have made progress since the original Parole Board hearings and the original case. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree for highlighting the steps forward. Victims may now apply for a summary of a board decision; they can also apply for the hearing to be held in public. Discretion still rests with the chair of the Parole Board, who takes into account a range of factors, but there is now the opportunity for a public hearing to be requested and potentially granted in the interests of transparency.

On the shadow Minister’s point about the powers to challenge decisions and suchlike, in July 2019 the Parole Board rules were changed to allow the Secretary of State to apply for the reconsideration of a release decision. Victims of crime and the families of victims of crime can also now make representations to the Secretary of State as to why they should put forward an overarching Secretary of State view calling for the Parole Board to reconsider or not release.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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I thank the Minister for giving way and for answering the point I raised. I want to go back to the 70 referrals. I accept that they were referrals, rather than confirmed breaches. However, even if 10 or 15 of those referrals were considered to be breaches of his licence, although they may well have been minor, do they not have a roll-up effect, where he is constantly breaching or being referred for breaches, and therefore more serious consideration should have been taken?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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The context in which I addressed that was the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley about notifications and thresholds. Those previous breaches—where, cumulatively, there is a breach and another breach—may not bring about a recall, but a probation officer managing the case will look at all those cumulatively in judging whether, when a further breach occurs or anything along those lines, there is a pattern of behaviour. I am wary of speculating on the individual decision making of an individual probation officer, because I will not know what factors they will have taken into account in an individual case, but they do consider those matters.

There were five specific questions raised by the right hon. Member for Knowsley. I will try, in so far as I can, to give him some answers, or more information than perhaps is already out there. First, he asked about the evidence presented at the trial. The police and Crown Prosecution Service, which are independent of Government, will have put all relevant evidence to Preston Crown court that they believed was material to securing a conviction when Venables and Thompson were tried for James’s murder.

The specific question of whether particular pieces of evidence should have been presented to the court, and what was or was not is, I am afraid, a matter for the police and ultimately for the prosecution lawyers in building that case on how they determined what evidence to present to secure the conviction they wanted to secure. That would be a matter for the CPS. With the caveat that I recognise and put on the record the independence of the CPS’s decision making and how it conducts the case, I am of course happy to highlight the points made here today to the Attorney General and the Solicitor General, who, as hon. Members will be aware, have oversight of the CPS.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
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Will the Minister give way?

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth
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Will the Minister give way?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I will give way to the hon. Lady and then the right hon. Gentleman.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
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I apologise if this was what my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley was going to say. We all know the CPS has to build the best case for getting a conviction, and some things will get left out and some things will not. But when the sexual element is left out in a court case, how can the public be certain that it is taken account of in a parole hearing? If the sexual crimes had definitely featured in the court case, the sexual crime element would have been part of the consideration in parole; that is the disconnect that we are concerned about.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady. As I say, the decisions on what to include are ultimately down to the prosecuting counsel and prosecuting lawyers from the CPS, but I will touch on those aspects when addressing a further question posed by the right hon. Member for Knowsley in a moment.

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth
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The point my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) was making is that, had that information been available at the time and during the trial, subsequent decisions that had to be made would have taken on a whole new light. She accepts and I accept—I think we all accept—that the judiciary is independent and that prosecutors should be able to decide what evidence they use, but in this particular case that omission could have led, and probably did lead, to decisions being made in later years that would otherwise have been different.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I will come on to address, to a degree, that specific point. Notwithstanding how the CPS and how the case itself was conducted and what evidence was used, when recommending the release in 2001, I am advised that the Parole Board would have been given all relevant information. However, I will undertake further inquiries to see whether it is possible to ascertain this far down the line and within what I can reveal publicly, what that might have constituted. In 2013, the Parole Board did of course have full details of Venables’s conviction for downloading and possessing illegal images of children, and it was therefore able to take that into consideration when considering the risk of sexual harm that he presented to children.

In the second question from the right hon. Member for Knowsley—he is always welcome to correct me if I miss one of his questions out—he asked whether Venables’s sexual interest in children was missed by all the experts, or whether it was known. Again, having discussed it with my officials, my understanding is that prior to his recall in connection to possessing illegal images of children in 2010, the supervising agencies were not aware of Venables’s sexual interest in children. However, they were aware of his broader risk to children, obviously arising in large part from the horrendous events of the murder of James, and that risk was then central to their ongoing management of him.

The third question posed by the right hon. Gentleman was whether proper consideration was given at the trial and at later parole hearings to the attempted abduction of another child earlier on the day that James was tragically murdered. Premeditation is relevant when it comes to any conviction for murder, as a necessity for securing the conviction. As hon. Members would expect, it falls to the CPS and the sentencing judge to consider that factor. I understand that the parole reviews in 2001 and 2013 proceeded on the basis that Venables had been lawfully convicted of murder and of the premeditation and planning involved in that. The Parole Board release decision in 2013 records the board’s awareness and consideration of attempted abductions earlier in the day.

As to the question of whether Thompson and Venables were pronounced to be rehabilitated in order to avoid them entering adult custody, I should clarify for hon. and right hon. Members that it is not the role of the Parole Board to pronounce an offender rehabilitated. Instead, it is constrained to applying the statutory release test when considering whether someone should be released—that is, whether it is necessary on the grounds of public protection for the offender to remain confined in custody, based on available evidence.

I appreciate that that may appear to be a legal splitting of hairs, but there is a slight and subtle difference in the statutory release test about whether there is a necessity on public protection grounds for someone to remain in custody or whether they are deemed to be rehabilitated and a reformed citizen. There is a legal differentiation there. Therefore, in recommending their release in 2001, the Parole Board determined, on the basis of its judgment, that the risks that Thompson and Venables presented were capable of being managed effectively in the community through the restrictions and prohibitions available through the life licence.

Finally, the right hon. Member for Knowsley asked whether representations were made by Lord Chief Justice Woolf to the Parole Board. I asked my officials to look into that and advise, and I can advise all hon. Members that I am not aware that any representations were made by the Lord Chief Justice to the Parole Board. At the time, Thompson and Venables were sentenced to life imprisonment. It fell to the Home Secretary of the day to set their tariff, or how long they would serve, taking account of a recommendation made by the Lord Chief Justice. Therefore, any recommendations from the Lord Chief Justice regarding the tariff would have been made to the Home Secretary. In respect of the parole question, having asked again and looked into it, I am not aware that any such representations were made—I caveat that by saying that I have answered to the extent of my knowledge.

I will end my contribution by again paying tribute to Mrs Fergus for not only her tireless campaigning for James, but her determination, as reflected in the statements read out by various right hon. and hon. Members, to make a difference in the future, to help people to learn the lessons and to support young people by setting up the James Bulger Memorial Trust, which provides holidays and respite for families of disadvantaged young people who have been the victims of crime, hatred or bullying, and those who have made a positive contribution to the welfare of others or society in general. The charity’s motto is “For James”, as Denise rightly wants him to be remembered positively as

“the beautiful little boy with the big sparkling smile”,

and not for how his short life ended.

I conclude this sombre debate by once again paying tribute to the dignity and the courage of Denise and her family, to the right hon. Member for Knowsley for securing this debate and approaching it in his typically measured, courteous and appropriate tone, and indeed to all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken. This debate is a testimony to Denise’s resilience and determination, and above all to her abiding love for James. I hope I will be able to continue the conversations around this matter with the right hon. Gentleman and others.

17:40
George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth
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I will be brief, because a lot of ground has been covered in this debate. First, I thank Denise Fergus for initiating the petition, for the briefing she gave and for the inspiration that she has given many of us. Well done. Secondly, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) and for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for contributing to the debate in their own distinctive but important ways. They have helped to make it a much better debate than it would have been with just me and those on the Front Bench. I thank my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), for the way he listened to and responded to what people had to say, and for the sensitivity he showed in his speech.

Finally, I am grateful to the Minister for the constructive way in which he responded to the debate, and would be happy to take him up on his offer of a meeting to discuss the matter further. I am sure that family members will want to be present. I do hope, though, that that constructive spirit continues. My fear—and this is not a criticism of the Minister—is that there have been so many false dawns in the past that this could become another one. I hope that we can agree on a process that will resolve all those issues. It will not bring James back, but, as his mother said in her statement, it could at least help to prevent anything similar from happening to another child in the future.

I look forward to meeting with the Minister, who I hope will reflect further on my suggestion regarding the public inquiry—by the way, I think there should be a public inquiry, but, if that gets ruled out, there needs to be some alternative way to consider these issues. I am sure the Minister will give thoughtful consideration to that matter so that we can have a meaningful discussion about to proceed.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 206851 relating to a public inquiry into the James Bulger murder case.

17:43
Sitting adjourned.