Ashcroft seeks disclosure of 'leaked dirt file'

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Indy Politics

Lord Ashcroft, the former treasurer of the Conservative Party, began a High Court action yesterday to force the Foreign Office to disclose a "dirt file" that he claims was leaked in a political vendetta to stop him being made a peer.

His lawyers said that the withholding of the file, with 55 others on Lord Ashcroft held by government departments, was an infringement of his human rights.

The billionaire peer claims that information gathered by the Foreign Office was leaked to the media to damage his reputation and pave the way for the rejection of his nomination to the House of Lords in 1999.

He is hoping to win a ruling that would revolutionise freedom of information laws by forcing the Government to disclose all but the most secret personal information it holds to the individuals concerned.

Mark Warby QC, for Lord Ashcroft, said at the court in London: "He was the victim of deliberate and malign interference with his prospects of appointment to the House of Lords - efforts which successfully kept him from the post for a year. This, he is confident, was a political vendetta."

The data - most of it held by the Foreign Office and the Department of International Development - was withheld when the Government said it was covered by an exemption for the honours system.

But the court was told that this exemption, which also applies to the appointments of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Poet Laureate, was contrary to the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act. Mr Warby said: "The case demonstrates the tension that exists between the executive's reluctance to disclose personal information and the fundamental right of the citizen to access his personal data."

Lord Ashcroft claims a background file compiled by Foreign Office staff and containing "gossipy information" was leaked to The Times in July 1999 shortly after William Hague, as Tory leader, put him forward for a peerage.

The newspaper published articles that year questioning Lord Ashcroft's business interests in the Central American banking centre of Belize.

The claims, which contained information from files kept by the American Drug Enforcement Agency, led to a £100m libel suit that was later settled out of court.

Mr Warby told the High Court that Lord Ashcroft believed he was "maliciously nobbled" by a political campaign to disclose the Foreign Office file and the reasons of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee for refusing his first nomination to the peerage.

The barrister said: "He believes, with reason, that both the rejection of his nomination and the leaks involved politically inspired abuse. It was an undermining of democracy."

Lord Ashcroft, who was made a peer in 2000 and appointed treasurer of the Tories after making generous donations to the party, later applied to see all files held on him but received only limited extracts from computerised records, the court was told.

One document was so heavily edited that the only word that had not been blacked out was "Belize".

Government lawyers had insisted that the names of people who had spoken or written about Lord Ashcroft in the files were provided in confidence and could not be disclosed to him, Mr Warby said.

If the case was successful, Lord Ashcroft intended to seek damages from those who leaked the information. Mr Warby said: "He wants to find out who was responsible and how it was done, and, if and when he finds out, will consider proceedings against the person or persons responsible."

The case continues.

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