The Appointment of James Timpson as Prisons Minister: A Key Moment for the CJS?

In a move that has sparked both curiosity and cautious optimism, James Timpson has been appointed as the new Prisons Minister. This appointment is significant, marking a potential shift towards a more compassionate and practical approach to the UK’s criminal justice system (CJS). In this article, Benjamin Knight considers whether a fresh approach to the CJS is on the horizon. Ben Knight on appointment of James Timpson as Prisons Minister

I recently visited the portacabin-style Timpson’s shop in the car park of my local supermarket. My slightly threadbare suit needed a dry clean and my charity-shop-find Levi’s jacket (don’t judge me) needed a new zip. I was struck by how busy the shop was for a Thursday lunchtime. I cast my eye over the small rack of free books. Having just read another email from the Bar Council about wellbeing at the Bar, I picked up a copy of “A Guide to Mental Health at Work“. Upon leafing through it, I realised that this wasn’t the usual bland platitudes aimed simply at trying to get the reader to acknowledge that workplaces can grind us all into the ground before we even realise. This little book was practical, compassionate, non-patronising, and substantial. Then I noticed that it was written by Sir John Timpson – the father of the man who is now the UK’s Minister of State for Prisons.

James Timpson, known for his innovative work with Timpson Group, which offers employment to ex-offenders, brings a wealth of experience in rehabilitation and social reintegration to his new role. He was born in Knutsford, has a (former) Tory MP for a brother, chaired the Employers Forum for Reducing Re-Offending (EFFRR), and chaired the Prison Reform Trust.

Whilst James Timpson’s business and arts acumen was utilised by the Johnson government, the new Labour government has wasted no time in taking him on as a life peer (he already held an OBE and was DL of Cheshire), specifically to fix the broken, creaking, over-populated, and not-fit-for-purpose prison system.

Those who have read my missives on CJS policy over the years (or been subjected to my voice on NorthPod Law, back in the day) will know that I am rarely optimistic about any government talking of revolutionary approaches to courts, prisons, or legal aid. However, this could be the beginning of a much-needed reform in several areas of the CJS, particularly concerning remand-pending-trial, youth custody, and legal aid.

So far, James Timpson has indicated that he is looking at an extension of the Early Release Scheme/Home Detention Curfew for non-violent offenders. He believes that the UK is “addicted to punishment” when “all the evidence suggests prison is not the right place” for a significant number of offenders. Interestingly, he shares one particular view with many in the CJS – that the public does not really know how long prison sentences have become. It is certainly the case that the public is fed a diet of misinformation on sentencing. Only extreme examples are presented in the media and, even in those cases, nothing about the full justification for the outcome is reported.

He has views on private prisons. In a recent interview (before his appointment) he said,

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,…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.”James Timpson - Prisons Minister; Keir Starmer - PM

Again, most CJS professionals would agree with the latter of these hot takes. Again, the public doesn’t even realise that profit is being made from the prison system. And again, the extent to which many private providers are putting their profits ahead of staffing, rehabilitation, maintaining order, staff discipline, access to legal representatives whilst on remand, and producing prisoners for proceedings – in other words, the taxpayer is rewarding them for literally not doing their job.

These are all “good noises”. These are also opinions based on fact and objective observation, rather than feelings and populist perception-bending.

Breaking the Remand-Pending-Trial Obsession

The UK’s obsession with remanding individuals pending trial is a practice that needs urgent reform. Current statistics show an alarming number of individuals are held in custody awaiting trial, often for extended periods. This not only places an unnecessary burden on the prison system but also disrupts the lives of those who may ultimately be found not guilty. The detrimental impact on their mental health, employment prospects, and family life is profound.

Weak decisions by police and the CPS (to oppose bail) are all too often based upon covering of derrieres. Those decisions are then perpetuated and upheld by magistrates’ courts. Those same courts have a well-earned reputation for siding with the State over the individual, to say the least. Some of the justifications given for refusing bail are, bluntly, absurd. Nevertheless, those decisions are too rarely overturned by the Crown Court because there is a natural tendency towards the status quo, by that point.

Where one is talking about proven violent offenders, those who are genuinely likely to abscond, have a proven and recent record of offending on bail/licence.. sure. However, a person with no previous but now facing a serious allegation of GBH? Those facing historic allegations? Those accused of financial or even drug trafficking offences? What is the point of locking them up at the pre-trial stage? Has the increase in remands done anything to outcomes? Nobody appears to have that figure. Has the public been better protected? Again, no figures.

In domestic abuse cases (including C&CB), locking-up an accused before conviction may look like it is helping – and in some cases, it is entirely justified – but, when remanded in custody, you are not subject to conditions of non-contact. You can be visited by the person you may have a long history of controlling and abusing (this happens pretty often). When released on bail, to an address miles away from your alleged victim, you can be subject to all manner of restrictions in contact, movement, alcohol consumption… We have the technology. We don’t have the prison space.

Timpson’s appointment could herald a new era where remand is used more judiciously. He understands the value of second chances and the importance of rehabilitation over punishment. A shift in policy towards more community-based measures and electronic monitoring for non-violent offenders could significantly reduce the remand population, easing the strain on our overcrowded prisons.

He cannot bring this about on his own, though. He is not the Home Secretary. He is not the Justice Secretary. That’s the more-than-slightly controversial Shabana Mahmood. In May 2024, before the General Election, Mahmood attacked the existing recent extension of early release. She claimed that it was dangerous and irresponsible to release offenders any earlier than the law already allowed. Now, of course, that was during the dying days of a Tory government and was party politics more than true political belief, perhaps. If Mahmood does believe what she told the House of Commons not two months ago, she is already at loggerheads with the Prisons Minister. Where does that leave us?

Youth Custody Overuse: A Call for Alternatives

The overuse of youth custody is another pressing issue within the CJS. Young people are often disproportionately affected by custodial sentences, which can be more harmful than rehabilitative. The current system tends to criminalise rather than support youth, leading to a cycle of reoffending.

Additionally, we appear to have travelled backwards on the child exploitation front. Children (that is to say, those under 18 years of age) are still being used in so-called county lines operations. They are still being prosecuted for their involvement. They are not being protected. Police officers are still failing to utilise the NRM, and are still regarding modern slavery legislation as some sort of “dodge”. Lawyers are still failing victims of modern slavery – not just children but also Albanian and Vietnamese trafficking victims.

We need a comprehensive review of youth justice policies, with a focus on diversionary tactics and restorative justice. Timpson’s background suggests he might advocate for such reforms. Providing young offenders with educational opportunities, vocational training, and mental health support can significantly reduce recidivism rates and help them reintegrate into society as productive members.

This ties into broader youth services reform, of course. The link between closure of youth services such as youth clubs is often dismissed by the hard of thinking because they don’t make the connection between those services and the attitudes of children in those affected areas. To spell it out: youth clubs are a great leveller. They allow kids from different schools, estates, socio-economic backgrounds, and experiences to meet on neutral ground, with adult supervision. This directly lessens the likelihood of divisions between those children and lessens the likelihood of ‘gang’ formation. Too often, adults regard knife crime as an ‘urban’ issue. They pictures gangs of hoodies hanging-out at the end of the park and around the local shops. They imagine that their little Johnny is only ever likely to be a victim of such ‘thugs’. In reality, the child-on-child murders and stabbings that youth justice practitioners deal with are often caucasian, middle-class kids whose parents are not looking under their beds or checking what is coming through the post from and such import sites. Those ‘good boys and girls’ fear each other because they don’t know each other. They read the same headlines that we read and hear the same broadcast media that we absorb. They are in a state of fear and they arm themselves against a threat they are constantly told is “everywhere”.

Other than allowing youths to meet and get to know and be friends with each other, youth clubs used to offer informal dispute-solving meetings. They were a way for adults in communities to spot burgeoning problems and division. They allowed exploitation to be spotted before those children become victims of violent or sexual offending. Removing them – and most are history – has been disastrous. The relative peanuts such services cost was a victim of ideological austerity.

As a youth with local authority involvement, I attended youth clubs and had the benefit of youth outreach services (in Lincolnshire), many years ago. I saw the life changing benefits that those services used to provide.

Greater Accessibility via CVP for Legal Consultations

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of technology within the legal system, particularly through the use of Cloud Video Platform (CVP) for legal consultations. However, access remains inconsistent, with many remanded individuals struggling to communicate effectively with their legal representatives.

Timpson’s appointment presents an opportunity to push for greater accessibility and consistency in the use of CVP. Ensuring all remanded individuals have reliable access to their lawyers can significantly impact the fairness and efficiency of their trials. This technological adoption needs to be standardised across all institutions, ensuring that no one is left without adequate legal representation due to logistical challenges.

Because it generates private revenue, businesses have been allowed to introduce 24/7 communications services that allow for prisoners to send/receive emails and to have video calls with family. That’s a good thing because prison should not be about inhuman treatment. Lockdowns due to covid and then a deliberate cut in staffing have led to prisoners being stuck in their cells for 23 hours a day. That was never what prisons were designed to provide.

However, what such services demonstrate is that prisons could and should allow far easier access to video conferencing with their lawyers. Booking CVP links that never happen or that are over subscribed because a prison has a tiny number of link rooms and courts are using them for just about everything but trials. That’s the experience of most criminal lawyers, and it is delaying justice. The ability to speak to one’s lay client is what allows cases to make progress.

An example of this is when stage 1 disclosure is due by x date. A conference is booked for a few days later (to allow for a little slippage). Stage 1 doesn’t happen because of police/CPS delays. The conference is then cancelled or is rendered pointless as the material isn’t there to discuss. Stage 2 (the defence statement) is then delayed or doesn’t happen because no conference slot is available. If a conference could take place within 24-48 hours of the eventual service, advice can be given and instructions taken and, in many cases, a plea may be forthcoming. Just like that, a case is resolved and the backlog is reduced.

Reviewing the Legal Aid Increase

The recent increase in legal aid following the barristers’ strike was a step in the right direction. I know I was very critical of the outcome but, even though I still believe that we could have done better, it was a good thing. However, the legal profession remains vigilant and prepared to take further action if necessary. The increase has already been absorbed by the system and by inflation, yet many challenges remain, particularly regarding the sustainability and adequacy of legal aid funding. We have heard very little from our leaders or from the civil service about all of the promises that remain unmet.

Timpson, alongside a Prime Minister with a deep understanding of the CJS from his tenure as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), is well-placed to appreciate the ongoing concerns of the legal community. It is imperative that the government continues to engage with legal professionals to ensure that the legal aid system is robust, fair, and capable of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in society.

Just this week, I overheard a heated discussion in one of the country’s busiest robing rooms to the effect that another strike should be considered very promptly, if we do not see immediate and substantial progress on the completion of the reforms agreed and an answer to the longer-term funding gaps. Don’t throw away those picket placards just yet, gentle reader.

A Meritocratic Government and an Informed PM

One cannot overlook the significance of having a Prime Minister who has served as the DPP. This unique background provides a profound understanding of the challenges and intricacies of the CJS. There is a renewed sense of optimism that this government, which appears to be driven by meritocratic principles, will take substantive steps towards reform.

James Timpson’s appointment is a promising sign. His proven track record in rehabilitation and employment for ex-offenders offers hope that the government is serious about addressing the deep-seated issues within the CJS. His pragmatic approach, combined with the PM’s informed perspective, could lead to meaningful changes.

We have been in a similar position before, though. We have all looked at Justice Secretary appointments and thought, “a lawyer in the job – maybe change will come!”, only to be disappointed overnight. I could reel them off but it is too depressing, frankly. We have had barrister PMs before. None have done anything positive for legal aid, Labour or Tory.

The difference is that the system is now indefensibly broken. The warnings were not acted upon. The view was taken that votes and party politics were more important than maintaining the justice system for all. Talk of victim support and “tough” action abound, of course. Some positive progress has been made on some aspects, but the overwhelming reality is that justice is being delayed and, by dint of that, denied. That used to be an attack line used against lawyers and judges. Now, ironically, it is us shouting that at successive governments as we point to the shortage of solicitors, barristers, judges, administrative police staff, and courts. There is no cheap fix to these problems. The Divisional Court has acknowledged that the problems are systemic. When people start to be released due to expired custody time limits (CTLs), the Treasury’s defence that the State’s failings were not foreseeable or systemic has already been dismissed by the Court. I know because it was me who asked them to acknowledge that reality.

Conclusion: A New Dawn for the CJS?

While it is early days, the appointment of James Timpson as Prisons Minister, coupled with a Prime Minister who understands the system’s intricacies, provides a glimmer of hope for the future of the CJS.

If you google James Timpson, one of the things you will read from many commentators is that “he gets things done“. Those projects in which he has been involved are testament to that. You will probably read that, in the words of Rory Stewart, “Yes, he gets things done but he pis*es a lot of people off in the process.” Whether that is compatible with serving under a fairly authoritarian Labour leader, and fettered by the restraints of public office, only time will tell.

The challenges are immense, but with the right leadership, there is potential for significant positive change. The legal community, as always, stands (just about) ready to support and, where necessary, challenge this new government to ensure that the CJS evolves into a system that truly serves justice and the public good.

We will be watching.