Why Starmer hired key-cutting boss as prisons minister

James Timpson
James Timpson is well-known for hiring former prisoners [No 10 Downing Street]

Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer says he has appointed a CEO known for employing ex-offenders as the new prisons minister because he "walks the walk".

James Timpson, of the Timpson Group, which provides key cutting and shoe repair services, has made a name for himself hiring hundreds of former prisoners. He previously said only a third of people in prison should be there.

During his first news conference as prime minister on Saturday, Sir Keir said Mr Timpson had invested "a huge amount over many years" into rehabilitating offenders and he was "very pleased" to have given him the post.

His comments came after prison governors last week warned jails could run out of space within days, putting the public in danger.

Mr Timpson was not elected by the public and is not an MP but will now be a member of the House of Lords, where he will scrutinise the work of the government and recommend changes to proposed legislation.

Alongside running his key cutting business, the 52-year-old is the chair of UK charity the Prison Reform Trust, which aims to reduce imprisonment and improve conditions for inmates and families.

Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer
Sir Keir Starmer said problems with prisons will not be fixed 'overnight' [EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock]

Nazir Afzal, former chief crown prosecutor for North West England and an advocate of the new government, called Mr Timpson's appointment "ground-breaking".

"We could see a significant sea change in how we deal with crime and offenders in this country," he said.

"We've had a culture for far too long of putting people inside who shouldn’t be."

However, former Labour home secretary David Blunkett said working in government was challenging.

"I think it’s a positively good thing if [Mr Timpson] is able to navigate the minefield of government," he said.

"Not just to say the right thing but to really achieve positive change in a radical rethink of how we do prisons and probation."

But some have little sympathy for criminals and believe in harsher and longer sentences.

One Tory MP, who did not want to be named, said: "The public want to see people properly punished for breaking the law but I get there needs to be a rethink."

Last week, the Prison Governors' Association (PGA), which represents more than 95% of all prison governors and managers working in England and Wales, said the entire criminal justice system "stands on the precipice of failure" as it called on the next government to tackle problems "without delay".

Mr Timpson is now the person assigned to sorting out the crisis as a matter of urgency, along with new Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood.

In February, Mr Timpson spoke openly about his views on the justice system, telling Channel 4 there needed to be an overhaul.

"We’re addicted to sentencing, we’re addicted to punishment," he said.

"So many of the people in prison in my view shouldn’t be there. A lot should but a lot shouldn’t, and they’re there for far too long."

Asked if he agreed with Mr Timpson's remarks at Saturday's news conference, Sir Keir said: "I've sat in the back of I don't know how many criminal courts and watched people processed through the system on an escalator to go into prison.

"And I've often reflected that many of them could have been taken out of that system earlier if they'd had support, and that is why what we want to do with our youth hubs and on knife crime is really, really important, because I want to reduce crime."

The prime minister said "we've got too many prisoners and not enough prisons", calling it a "monumental failure of the last government".

"We'll fix [it], but we can't fix it overnight," he said.

"We do need to be clear about the way we use prisons and we need to get away from the fact that so many people leave prison and then are back in prison pretty quickly.

"That is a massive problem that we need to break and that's why I was very pleased to put James into the post, someone who hasn't just talked the talk, he's actually walked the walk for many years."

He added that if young people, particularly boys, are offered support at a "point of intervention" in the early teenage years, it could ensure some of them "do not get on that escalator" to imprisonment.

Mr Timpson is one of three surprising ministerial appointments made by Sir Keir since his election win on Friday.

Sir Patrick Vallance, who served as the UK's chief scientific adviser during the Covid pandemic, has become science minister.

And Richard Hermer KC, who has 31 years of experience in human rights, public and environmental law, has become attorney general.

Prime ministers appoint ministers from outside of parliament for a range of reasons.

Experts from industry or academia are often appointed on account of their experience or specialist knowledge. This was particularly common in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when Gordon Brown and David Cameron appointed experts on economics, banking and finance from outside parliament to their governments.

In other cases, prime ministers can appoint former MPs, including those who have stepped down from parliament or lost their seats, in order to allow them to carry on in an existing ministerial role. Other individuals may be appointed as advisers to government rather than as full ministers, although these roles are often referred to informally as "tsars".

Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, told the BBC: "I think there are potentially big benefits to a government having people who can bring genuine expertise.

"Someone like Patrick Vallance has actually been inside government so he knows what it's like. It's a really interesting appointment.

"It is useful and the big task is to make this work both for the government and for the new incoming minister as well - to make sure they are properly supported in all their new duties and make sure they don't find themselves distracted from what they think they've been brought in to do."