As a young barrister specialising in criminal law, Jeremy Wright acted for the prosecution as often as he put the case for the defence. His experience of the justice system at the sharp end, as well as his ability to adapt to any brief, have proven invaluable since his promotion to the Ministry of Justice in September 2012.
Wright never forgets that his title is minister for prisons and rehabilitation. And with the flagship Offender Rehabilitation Bill (known as ‘ORB’ by Whitehall insiders) due a second reading in the Commons soon, he knows that he has undertaken a big task of radical reform over coming months. Chris Grayling, secretary of state for justice and his boss, is very active on prisons and probation, often grabbing the big ‘tough justice’ headlines. But as Grayling is the first non-lawyer in more than 300 years to serve as Lord Chancellor, Wright’s legal nous may prove even more useful as he advises on the practicalities – and politics – of Coalition policy.
Advocating for thousands
Jeremy Paul Wright was born in Taunton, the son of teachers. After gaining his law degree from Exeter University, he was called to the bar in 1996 and went on to work in the criminal courts of the West Midlands. Yet Wright harboured ambitions to act as an advocate for thousands of people, rather than just one at a time. Having been selected as Tory candidate for the marginal Labour seat of Rugby and Kenilworth, he won it in 2005 in one of the few breakthroughs of the Michael Howard era.
Wright cut his Parliamentary teeth on familiar turf, serving on the Constitutional Affairs (later Justice) Select Committee. He was ‘talent-spotted’ by David Cameron’s team in 2007 and served in the opposition whips office until the election. After the Coalition was formed, he spent two years as a government whip until the reshuffle of 2012 gave him his big promotion to the front line. As for many among the 2005 intake in ministerial roles (David Gauke, Richard Benyon, Greg Clark, Anne Milton), his friends say he’s been around long enough to know the pitfalls of Parliament, but not so long that he’s jaded by it.
Within days of his new posting, it was clear that Wright’s job was to balance a tougher message on prisons (compared to the ‘softer’ approach of his predecessor Crispin Blunt) with a stress on rehabilitation as a means of cutting both crime, and the costs of reoffending. With No.10 keen to draw a line under the Blunt and Clarke eras, Wright and Grayling have embarked on a war on so-called ‘holiday camp’ jails and signalled that prisoners will have to earn such privileges as Sky TV and gym time.
But equally, the minister is concerned about the number of older prisoners, monitoring them for signs of dementia (he has long had an interest in the issue, having founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Dementia in 2007). Tory backbenchers liked his crackdown on things like prisoners being able to order a pizza, while prison reformers appreciate his pilot scheme to end strip-searching of young offenders. He’s seen as very smooth in speaking to different audiences without them ever getting a real handle on what he thinks: the classic barrister-turned-politician.
Pushing PbR and Community Payback
Wright is a vociferous advocate for payment-by-results within probation and rehabilitation, arguing that a large number of organisations want to provide services, often in partnerships. The results of the first year of a four-year pilot at Doncaster Prison (run by Serco and social businesses Turning Point and Catch22) are due to be published next year, with a stated aim to cut reoffending from 58.2 to 53.2 per cent.
As ever, cutting costs is a big driver, although the aim is to get as many charities involved as possible, often with the help of bonds to allow them to finance their schemes. The minister is a big fan too of ‘community payback’ and is pushing to make it more intensive, more visible to the public and delivered more swiftly after an offender is sentenced.
Wright remains a non-practising member of the high-flying No5 Chambers in Birmingham, a group of barristers which only recently denounced Grayling’s original plan to axe client choice for legal aid solicitors. Fortunately for Wright, legal aid isn’t his brief.
When asked about his hobbies, the minister says he used to play the trumpet but admits, 'I can barely get a note out of the instrument these days.' He's not one to blow his own trumpet, literally or metaphorically. But Jeremy Wright is one to watch.