New ministers keep their promises

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An audit of the finances and running of the Prison Service is to be set up as a "matter of urgency", it was disclosed yesterday.

The review is aimed at reducing overcrowding and cutting the escalating prison costs. It is expected to lead to closer ties between the Home Office and Prison Service and give ministers greater responsibility for operational and policy decisions.

Labour must also decide whether to ditch its opposition to private jails in order to cope with the rising prison population and need for extra accommodation. Private companies that have already signed contacts to build new jails will be allowed to continue. The number of people in jails in England and Wales has just reached the record 60,000 mark.

It also became clear yesterday that an extra 40,000 handguns are almost certain to be banned - making all revolvers illegal. MPs are expected by October next year to be given a free vote on banning the small calibre .22 revolvers that remain legal, said Home Office sources. Labour has already backed an all-out ban and with its huge majority, most of whom are opposed to the ownership of firearms, a vote against handguns is a certainty. The cost of compensation is likely to be at least pounds 12m.

Jack Straw, the new Home Secretary, said yesterday that his Crime and Disorder Bill, to be announced next Wednesday, would concentrate on youth crime and neighbour nuisances.

Clearly enjoying his new job, he added: "Four days in Government is better than 18 years in Opposition."

Supporting Mr Straw at the Home Office is Alun Michael, who will be responsible for police matters; Joyce Quin, who will deal with prisons, asylum and immigration; Mike O'Brien, immigration case work; George Howarth, drugs, detailed prison issues and the fire service; and Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Lords and constitutional issues.

Later this week, Mr Straw will meet the director general of the Prison Service, Richard Tilt. Meetings with Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Condon and HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Sir David Ramsbotham will follow.