Prison reform experts hail role for shoe repair CEO James Timpson

Making a shoe repair businessman the minister for prisons is an unusual governmental appointment, but James Timpson is an unusual type of businessman.

The 52-year-old chief executive of the Timpson group has given the family business a reputation for radical approaches to the way it treats employees and customers that goes beyond offering key cutting, phone repairs and dry cleaning.

More than 10% of the firm’s workforce are former prisoners. It has an “upside down” management style where the 5,600 employees are in charge and the Timpson family is in the top 10 highest taxpayers in the UK.

In 2021, Timpson told workers they could claim prescription charges for hormone replacement therapy (HRT) on expenses. They have offered to clean job interview outfits for free for customers who are unemployed. The Alex Timpson Trust offers free holiday homes for foster families because James’s parents, John and Alex, who died in 2016, fostered 90 children over 31 years at their home in Manchester.

And the company does small jobs for free, such as adding a new belt hole for customers, asking them to make a donation instead of paying, which has raised more than £4m for charities so far.

James Timpson has previously worked with Conservative ministers on prison reform – Rishi Sunak visited a Timpson’s during the election campaign – and was chair of the Prison Reform Trust until his surprise appointment yesterday, which was broadly welcomed.

A worker at a Timpson’s in south Kensington, who didn’t want to give his name, said: “Although they hire ex-offenders, they won’t bring back certain criminals. So they have control of who they bring into the workforce so there’s no accidents or recurrences in the future.

“To give people second chances – to help them believe that they can actually be good and decent people, and to be able to help out the community and just be seen as a normal person without having to worry about all their past dealings – is a great thing.”

Andrea Coomber, chief executive at the Howard League, a leading prison reform charity, welcomed the appointment. “For more than 20 years, James has been visiting prisons and recruiting prison leavers,” she said. “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.

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“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.”

Prison Reform Trust chief executive Pia Sinha thanked Timpson for his “inspirational leadership, support, wisdom and generosity”.

The Guardian