Why James Timpson’s ministerial appointment is a masterstroke by Labour

The public sector could learn a lot from the innovation and creativity on show in the corporate world. The appointment of James Timpson is a step in the right direction

James Timpson Ceo Timpsons
Picture by Lauren Hurley / No 10 Downing Street

As Keir Starmer began handing out ministerial appointments in the wake of Labour’s landslide election victory, one name stood out. James Timpson, CEO of the family-owned Timpson Group and former chair of the Prison Reform Trust, was appointed prisons minister. 

While some questioned the wisdom of awarding the position to someone whose company is best known for its key-cutting and locksmith services, these judgements overlook Timpson’s record as a business leader. 

Despite not serving as a sitting MP (he was ennobled in order to be given a ministerial position), Timpson will bring a wealth of practical experience to his new role – something that is far too often missing from government appointments. 

As a businessman, Timpson has taken direct action to tackle the issues he has been brought into government to solve. During a recent keynote speech at Qualtrics X4 event in London, Timpson reflected on his first prison visit in 2002. While walking the wings, he struck up a conversation with 18-year-old Matthew, who had been incarcerated for fighting in a nightclub. After taking a shine to the young man, Timpson offered him a job upon his release. 

Fast-forward 20 years and Matthew is a branch manager in one of Timpson’s stores, near the prison he served his sentence in. And he’s not alone, one in nine of Timpson’s employees are former convicts and the CEO describes those he’s recruited from prisons as “some of the best people I’ve ever hired”.

This strategy has proved so successful that a long list of companies now recruit directly from prisons and, in doing so, have helped to rehabilitate ex-convicts and reduce reoffending. Timpson claims that only four of the several hundred ex-offenders he’s hired have ever returned to prison – the current reoffending rate in the UK is 25%. While Timpson used to have free choice of prison leavers, the business now competes with the likes of Greggs, Pret A Manger and COOK when it comes to this talent pool.

With the UK’s prisons fast approaching capacity, Timpson’s fresh perspective may be what’s required to reform the current system.

An unorthodox leader

And it’s not just his record of rehabilitation that the government can learn from. Since the last election, a number of MPs have faced allegations of bullying. The incidences of inappropriate behaviour were so frequent that the former chair of the House of Commons standards committee described it as “the worst parliament in history”. In contrast, Timpson’s unique style of “upside-down leadership” is focused on showing trust and kindness to his staff.

Timpson has also shown a willingness to challenge the established rules of business. Although this may remind some of former prime minister Liz Truss and her disastrous economic experiments, Timpson’s innovations have brought much better results.

Timpson shops offer several services for free – in fact, 4% of all the business’s transactions are made without a charge. While this may sound counterintuitive, the shops that do the most free jobs perform the best, according to Timpson. 

Staff at his stores are also given the freedom to decide what stock to order, the shop opening hours and what discounts to offer. There are only two rules: put the money in the till and look the part. The “training course” for new starters simply says: “Please ignore all memos and do what you think is right.” 

Explaining the policy, Timpson says: “When you trust people to be themselves and allow them to get their personality across, they will perform so much better and be much more innovative.”

As reward for their hard work, Timpson staff can expect a day off for their birthday, for their child’s first day at school and on becoming a grandparent, as well as a week off when they get married and free use of one of 20 holiday homes. “The more money you spend on saying thank you to colleagues,” Timpson says, “the more the business makes a profit.”

On Timpson’s appointment, Starmer noted that he wanted someone who “hasn’t just talked the talk, he’s actually walked the walk”. But, while this unorthodox approach to leadership has proved successful for Timpson in the corporate world, politics is a different beast.

As CEO of a family-run business, he has so far been afforded the freedom to experiment. Innovation is something that’s rewarded in the private sector – in comparison, he may find the halls of Westminster stifling. 

However, if he is afforded the latitude to continue walking his own walk and to come up with innovative solutions to the many problems facing the UK’s prison system, his appointment could be a stroke of genius by Labour. 

Timpson’s appointment may pave the way for more business leaders to be appointed into government. If they’re of the same calibre as Timpson, it’s a prospect I wouldn’t be opposed to.