Page last updated at 13:47 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

Balls criticises children's commissioner on Bulger view

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

Police handout in 1993 of Jon Venables
Jon Venables served eight years for murdering James Bulger

Children's Secretary Ed Balls has criticised England's children's commissioner for "ill advised" comments about the killers of James Bulger.

The commissioner, Maggie Atkinson said children under the age of 12 were too young to understand their actions.

The comments led victim's mother Denise Fergus to call for her sacking because of the "twisted" views.

Mr Balls said his sympathies were with Mrs Fergus but he did not want to label any child as "intrinsically evil".

Dr Atkinson suggested James's killers should not have been prosecuted in an adult court because, aged 10, they were too young.

'Evil acts'

Mr Balls said "my sympathies are with Mrs Bulger and not the children's commissioner".

Maggie Atkinson
Maggie Atkinson said James's killers should not have been tried as adults

"On the issue of criminal responsibility, I disagree with the children's commissioner. On her linking of the views on criminal responsibility with the Bulger case - I thought that was ill advised.

"I think not just for Mrs Bulger, but for many people, the scars of what was done to James Bulger are very deep.

"And I think it would be quite wrong not to have had criminal proceedings for the children who did that to James Bulger."

But Mr Balls also said he rejected the idea some children were "evil" - drawing the distinction between evil acts and "labelling children as evil".

He also referred to the Edlington case in which two brothers, aged 10 and 11, attacked two boys in South Yorkshire.

"If you take the Edlington case, there were evil acts, but I'm not willing myself to say that the two boys were themselves evil.

"If you look at the details of what happened to those boys, the abuse and harm and suffering that they went through in previous years, it was tragic what happened to them.

"But clearly what they did to the lads from Doncaster was terrible. They were evil acts, but to say that any child is intrinsically evil and therefore can't be helped and supported to turn things round, I don't agree with that."

Mr Balls emphasised Dr Atkinson was independent of government and he had not spoken to the children's commissioner since her comments.

'Cold-blooded'

James Bulger's mother called for Dr Atkinson to resign or be sacked over her comments.

"To say that his killers should not have been tried in an adult court is stupid.

She said they committed a "cold-blooded murder" that was premeditated.

Denise Fergus
Denise Fergus said children aged 10 could be "truly evil"

In an interview with the Times on Saturday, Dr Atkinson criticised the authorities' treatment of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who were 10 when they snatched two-year-old James from a Merseyside shopping centre in 1993.

They walked the toddler more than two miles to a railway line, where they beat him to death.

Dr Atkinson told the newspaper: "What [Venables and Thompson] did was exceptionally unpleasant and the fact that a little boy ended up dead is not something the nation can easily forget, but they shouldn't have been tried in an adult court because they were still children."

She later issued a statement in which she said she wished to put into context her views on "such terrible atrocities" as James Bulger's killers and two young brothers who tortured other children in Edlington.

She said: "I empathise with the pain and anguish felt by all the families of the victims involved. Children who carry out such atrocities and other serious offences need to understand the severity of their actions."

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the age at which children can be tried in an adult court is 10.

In Scotland, the age is currently eight, but legislation is being passed to raise it to 12.

Venables, now aged 27, has been recalled to prison.

He is suspected of breaching the licence under which he and Thompson were released with new identities in 2001.

The government has confirmed it does not intend to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

Kenneth Clarke, the shadow business secretary - who was home secretary at the time of James Bulger's murder - rejected calls for Dr Atkinson to go.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne, said he sympathised with Mrs Fergus, but the commissioner was right to raise the issue.



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SEE ALSO
James Bulger's mother meets Straw
11 Mar 10 |  Merseyside
Bulger murderer returned to jail
02 Mar 10 |  Merseyside

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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
The Scotsman Don't treat children like Bulger killers as criminals, says 'tsar' - 16 hrs ago
Guardian.co.uk Is the age of criminal responsibility too low at 10? | Open thread - 27 hrs ago
Yahoo! UK and Ireland Balls: 'Bulger Comments Were Ill Advised' - 30 hrs ago
Daily Star Bulger killer may avoid prosecution - 31 hrs ago
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