In his statement to reporters at the House of Commons, Mr Ashdown said: 'The document reported to have been stolen from the safe of my solicitors, Bates, Wells and Braithwaite, and subsequently offered by the thief for sale to newspapers, refers to me.

'It contains information supplied in confidence to my solicitors about a brief relationship which I had five years ago, before the 1987 general election, and well before I became leader of my party.

'When the theft was discovered I was advised and believed that I had every right to defend my privacy. I was further advised that because its circulation arose from a criminal act, the document would be protected by the full force of the law. In those circumstances, my solicitors obtained an injunction preventing its publication.

'However, it is now clear to me that in this pre-election atmosphere, I, my family, my friends and party colleagues, will not be left alone. I have therefore decided to make this personal statement. I have also decided, after discussing it with all involved, that I should instruct my solicitors to lift the injunction.

'It is my view that this brief relationship of five years ago is and always should have remained a private and personal matter of concern only to those involved.

'This has been an extremely painful experience. But it is one which all involved, and especially Jane, my family and I, have faced together.

'While I am more than happy to answer any and all questions relating to my public duties and my capacity to do my job, I will have nothing further to say relating to my private and personal life. I now intend to get back to work.'

Mr Ashdown's solicitor, Andrew Phillips, a member of the Scott Trust which owns the Guardian, said in a statement that the name of the woman involved was Tricia Howard , formerly Sullivan.

Ms Howard had stopped working for Mr Ashdown and was 'irrevocably separated' from her husband prior to the relationship, Mr Phillips said.

He said Mr Ashdown had told him of the five-month affair, which took place in 1986, on May 31 1990. 'In the course of divorce proceedings some years later in 1990, it appeared possible that these facts might become public.

'Immediately after the meeting on May 31 1990, I dictated and had typed a confidential file note by way of an aide memoire. My secretary made no copies and placed the note in a sealed envelope in one of our office safes.

'No one else was aware of the note until January 30, 1992 and no reference to it was entered in any of our reference books.

'Over the weekend of January 11-12, 1992, my firm was burgled and access was gained to all my firm's safes, including the one in which the confidential file note had been placed.'

Mr Phillips said following the burglary it was not immediately realised the note was missing, but Ms Howard was approached by the News of the World about the relationship on January 28.

A Miss Lister called twice again at Ms Howard's house last Thursday, January 30, offering her a 'considerable sum of money for confidential information'.

During that day Mr Phillips said he was contacted by Gary Jones, who told him he was a crime reporter on the News of the World. Mr Jones said the paper had been shown a document bearing Mr Phillips' name which seemed to relate to a discussion with Mr Ashdown.

'In answer to my inquiry, he told me that his paper had been approached earlier that week, but he did not know whether or not the note was genuine and that he wanted to know from me whether or not it was,' Mr Phillips said.

'He said that they had not spoken to anyone else about it, that they had not been to the police and that his editor was aware of the position.

'Since we already knew of the four visits to Ms Howard by the News of the World personnel and, in particular, of their imparting confidential information from my file note and of their attempt to induce her to corroborate it by the offer of money, we felt a severe lack of confidence as to what the News of the World would do next.'

As a result they sought and were awarded an injunction to prevent publication of the story in the News of the World and effectively elsewhere.

'It has become clear since the weekend that every effort is being made by a few papers to circumvent the injunction and that the terms of the same must be being widely, if untraceably breached,' Mr Phillips said.

In the circumstances, Mr Ashdown had decided in effect to lift the injunction.

Mr Phillips's statement added that Mr Ashdown was speaking with the full knowledge and approval of Ms Howard, who had nothing to add to or subtract.

'Ms Howard has asked me to say that she hopes that she will now be left alone to live a normal life,' he said.

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