BLACKBURN MP Jack Straw was closer than anyone else to judge the new Prime Minister in action - after sitting next to him in the new Cabinet's first meeting.

Mr Straw was named Justice Secretary by Gordon Brown yesterday - and it took only a matter of hours before he walked into the row over the early release of prisoners.

Mr Brown's leadership campaign manager will be responsible for the courts, prisons, probation, criminal law and sentencing.

His new job also means he is the first MP to hold the Lord Chancellor's role, previously held by a member of the House of Lords.

And he saw the new Prime Minister in action at close quarters after the seating plan moved him from his usual place opposite the Premier and put him in the seat immediately to his left.

He said: "I wasn't complaining! I was told to sit there and I didn't say no."

He said the new regime was "new and different and added: "He is obviously ready for the challenge and he was very good. He made the point to us all that it is our role to serve and we are there on trust and that the trust of the public is something we have to earn."

Mr Straw is already well briefed on many of the issues he will be tackling as he spent four years dealing with them as Home Secretary and had an overall brief in his previous job as Leader of the Commons.

The early release of prisoners gets under way today in a bid to ease overcrowding in jails.

And when questioned about the "thousands and thousands of prisoners being released", Mr Straw said: "It is not thousands and thousands. It will be a number subject to 18-day early release.

"We are convicting more people in the courts which has increased the pressurs on prisons despite the fact that we have greatly increased prison places."

He said his role in the new cabinet would help him influence key issues such as community cohesion, which is being tackled through the 100 Voices campaign in Blackburn, and the Lancashire Telegraph's Wasted Lives campaign, which is calling for new laws and increased education to reduce the numbers of young drivers and passengers killed on the roads.

He said: "One of the priorities was to create a better sense of citizenship, with at least part of the debate taking place in East Lancashire." The Ministry of Justice was created when the Home Office was split earlier this year.

He said: "I am delighted with my appointments.

"I will be the first Lord Chancellor in the House of Commons and I am delighted I am also the Secretary of State for Justice.

"The big challenge is to make changes to shift power from the Government to Parliament and from Parliament to the people."