Politics

How Starmer's new prisons minister James Timpson wants to change the way we lock people up

The new prisons minister on why we lock too many people up, and why 'pissing people off' might be necessary

Timpsons CEO James Timpson

Image: ©Jimmy's Jobs of the Future

Would James Timpson, CEO of eponymous high street chain Timpson, ever go into politics? “No, my brother is an MP, he’s stepping down,” he said when the Big Issue asked him in February. “I think I can have a big impact on people through the work that I’m doing with prisons. Giving people a second chance.”

Plenty can change in a few weeks: Timpson is now in the new Labour government’s cabinet as prisons minister, plucked from business by Keir Starmer to manage a creaking and overcrowded part of Britain’s criminal justice system.

“I would say I’m a bit of a Blairite, probably, is where I am,” Timpson told the Big Issue. “I think that most sensible politicians are a force for good. But what they have, often, an inability to understand, is how to get things done.”

One of the most interesting cabinet appointments made by Keir Starmer is not a longstanding Labour stalwart, or a newly-minted MP with a bright future. Instead, to fix up this country’s broken prison system, Starmer has turned to the boss of a chain of shoe repair shops. Timpson is the CEO of the family firm, where around 10% of the employees are ex-prisoners, and is also a passionate campaigner for prison reform, chairing the Prison Reform Trust.

How can prisons improve, we asked James Timpson in the interview back in February this year? “It takes a change in politics to get there, and it needs someone who’s brave. It probably needs a government with a big majority,” he responded.

James Timpson: ‘We’ve got far too many people in prison’

James Timpson is walking into a big job. In Keir Starmer’s first press conference as prime minister, he said the country has “too many prisoners, not enough prisons”, and that prisoners found themselves back inside “relatively quickly” after their release.

One plan being considered by Labour is the release of prisoners after serving 40% of their sentences. In the face of the challenges, Timpson’s appointment has been welcomed by prison reform experts.

“For more than 20 years, James has been visiting prisons and recruiting prison leavers,” Andrea Coomber, chief executive at the Howard League for Penal Reform told the Big Issue.

“Having seen the system up close, James understands that prisons currently are unable to rehabilitate or hold safely and decently the huge numbers of people within them. He understands that an urgent review of population numbers and of sentencing is long overdue. We look forward to sound, evidence-led policy from the new government, that prioritises rehabilitation, productive sentences, and the use of prison only where absolutely necessary.”

Campbell Robb, chief executive of Nacro, a national charity helping people in prison and on release, added: “With James’ experiences of working with people in prison, supporting them on release and his understanding of the criminal justice system he will know the challenges he faces, as well as where the opportunities lie. It feels hopeful to have someone with his level of experience and passion for rehabilitation in this pivotal role.”

Timpson’s philosophy is that prison is not just a place to lock people up – it is a place to help them. The biggest problem with prisons right now, he said, is simple: “We’ve got far too many people in prison. Too many people sharing cells, not enough officers to care for them.”

But politicians have failed to grasp the problem. “What politicians are good at is complicating things, and fudging it to try and make sure everyone’s happy. Sometimes you have to make decisions that not everyone’s happy with,” said Timpson. “But actually, you’ve got to do it. I also think the public sector is just too big, it’s trying to do too many things. It’s too complicated. And there are too many people who are very well meaning, you know, working really hard, but actually doing jobs that we can’t afford.

Former prisons minister Rory Stewart, now a prolific podcaster, made an impact on James Timpson: “He didn’t worry too much about appealing to every person there. So that’s probably why he got things done. But he pissed people off as well.”

The public simultaneously wants tougher sentences, but does not realise how tough sentences already are, Timpson argued. “We’ve become addicted to punishment, this country,” he said. “We’re locking people up far too long. And we’re sending people to prison when actually all the evidence suggests prison is not the right place for them.”

On the private sector in prisons, Timpson doesn’t necessarily think it’s a good thing. “The success of a prison is far more down to the leadership of that prison and the culture within it, rather than who runs it. So I can show you some excellent private prisons. I can also show you some terrible ones. I can show you some excellent public sector prisons,” he said.

“My instinct says I have a real problem with people making a profit out of, essentially, because if I’m the governor of a private prison, I can give people extra days in prison. I’ve got a problem with that.”

At the heart of the issue is poverty, Timpson said. “If you go into a prison it’s full of people who are poor, people who’ve been brought up in poverty. People who have never had the chances that I’ve had in life, often have dysfunctional families, moved around a lot, in the care system,” he said. “And it’s just a self fulfilling prophecy, which is they know they’re going to end up in prison.”

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