Tory peer seeks access to his files

Former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft has launched a bid to get information about a "political vendetta" against him.

The billionaire businessman wants the High Court to rule that he is entitled to know what the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development have on 56 paper files about him so that he can correct it and - if appropriate - claim compensation.

His counsel, Mark Warby QC, told Mr Justice Gray in London that the claim was not made out of "idle curiosity" but from a background which raised important questions about democracy and the role of the state.

Emphasising that it was not a party political point, he said that to uphold the defence position would lend encouragement to any government which "was or is" ready to leak information or "nobble" a political opponent.

"That we suggest is not only incompatible with a democracy, it's simply wrong as a matter of law."

The claim, under the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act, stems from events in the 1990s when Lord Ashcroft says that civil servants collected a file of "dirt" about him. He also says that they circulated memoranda detailing more innuendo and gossip about him - none of which they could substantiate.

Counsel added: "Over an 18-month period in 1999-2000, there was a series of events which left him convinced that he was a victim of a political vendetta".

In 1999, his nomination for a working peerage by opposition leader William Hague was blocked by someone "for no good reason, Lord Ashcroft confidently maintains".

Details of it being blocked were leaked to the press and fuelled further damaging publicity, and when a renewed and ultimately successful nomination for a peerage ran into difficulty in 2000 there were further leaks saying that the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee had deemed him unsuitable.

The five-day hearing is contested by the Attorney General on behalf of the Foreign Office and by the DFID who say that Lord Ashcroft has no right of access to anything on the files or to know anything about his peerage nomination.

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