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Minister defends Tory donor Frank Hester embroiled in race row

Frank Hester donated £10 million to the Tories last year (CHOGM Rwanda 2022/YouTube/PA)
Frank Hester donated £10 million to the Tories last year (CHOGM Rwanda 2022/YouTube/PA)

A minister has defended a major Conservative Party donor who reportedly said MP Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” and that she “should be shot”.

Energy minister Graham Stuart said on Tuesday that he would “hesitate” to describe Frank Hester’s comments as racist.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats branded Mr Hester’s alleged remarks as “clearly racist and abhorrent” and urged the Tories to return the money he has donated to the party.

He donated £10 million to the Tories last year, according to Electoral Commission records.

Ms Abbott herself said the comments were “frightening” and “alarming” given two MPs – Jo Cox and Sir David Amess – have been murdered in recent years.

Mr Hester, chief executive of healthcare software firm The Phoenix Partnership (TPP), has admitted making “rude” comments about Ms Abbott, the first black woman elected to Parliament, but claimed they had “nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

The Guardian reported that he told a company meeting in 2019: “It’s like trying not to be racist but you see Diane Abbott on the TV, and you’re just like… you just want to hate all black women because she’s there.

“And I don’t hate all black women at all, but I think she should be shot.

“(The executive) and Diane Abbott need to be shot.”

In a statement released via his firm, Mr Hester said he had rung Ms Abbott on Monday to “apologise directly for the hurt he has caused her”.

“Frank Hester accepts that he was rude about Diane Abbot (sic) in a private meeting several years ago but his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin,” the statement said.

“He wishes to make it clear that he regards racism as a poison which has no place in public life.”

Diane Abbott
Diane Abbott is currently suspended as a Labour MP (Ian West/PA)

Asked about Mr Hester’s comments, Mr Stuart declined to describe them as racist or “comment on hypotheticals”.

He told Times Radio: “I’m hesitating to call it that because I don’t like to sit in judgment on these things.

“It was clearly a ridiculous thing to say, he’s rightly apologised for it, and here’s a man who’s supporting the most diverse Cabinet we’ve ever had under this Conservative Party.

“We’ve got a Hindu Prime Minister and he’s our biggest donor, so I don’t think this is a man who is a racist.”

On ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Mr Stuart said: “I don’t comment on hypotheticals. It hasn’t been verified. Clearly, whatever he said, it wasn’t acceptable, he has apologised, he has sought to reach out to Diane Abbott, and quite rightly too.”

Pressed on whether the Tories should return Mr Hester’s donations, Mr Stuart told Sky News: “We can’t cancel anybody from participation in public life, or indeed donating to parties, because they said something intemperate and wrong in their past.

“It’s not my decision, but I do welcome those who support the Conservative Party.”

Cabinet minister Mel Stride also defended Mr Hester, saying that, while his alleged remarks had been “inappropriate”, they were not “gender-based or race-based”.

The Work and Pensions Secretary added: “He has apologised and I think we need to move on from that.”

But opponents have criticised the Tories’ reluctance to describe Mr Hester’s reported remarks as racist and urged the governing party to hand back the money he and his company have donated.

Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been urged to return money donated by Frank Hester (Daniel Leal/PA)

Ms Abbott said in a statement to ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “It’s frightening. I live in Hackney and do not drive, so I find myself, at weekends, popping on a bus or even walking places more than most MPs.

“I am a single woman and that makes me vulnerable anyway. But to hear someone talking like this is worrying.

“For all of my career as an MP I have thought it important not to live in a bubble, but to mix and mingle with ordinary people.

“The fact that two MPs have been murdered in recent years makes talk like this all the more alarming.

“I am currently not a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party but remain a member of the Labour Party itself, so I am hoping for public support from Keir Starmer.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told ITV’s Lorraine: “The comments about Diane Abbott are just abhorrent…

“This apology this morning that is pretending that what was said wasn’t racist or anything to do with the fact she’s a woman, I don’t buy that I’m afraid, and I think that it’s time the Tory Party called it out and returned the money.”

He added that former Labour MP Ms Abbott “has been a trailblazer, she has paved the way for others, she’s probably faced more abuse than any other politician over the years on a sustained basis”.

Labour MP Sarah Jones told Sky News: “Of course the Conservative Party should be very quick to say these comments were racist and abhorrent, and of course we don’t want money from this kind of person.”

Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds has written to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak highlighting that he accepted a personal gift of nearly £16,000 for a helicopter ride.

She wrote: “Accepting and using that money can only be treated as implicitly condoning and overlooking his deeply disturbing comments and the way he has run his business.

“Anything less than returning the money will be a stain on the Conservative Party.”

Lib Dem chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “Graham Stuart’s refusal to call out these racist comments was simply jaw-dropping.

“The Conservative Party has flat out refused to return these donations despite these comments being inexcusable. How low can you go?

“Rishi Sunak can bunker down and hide in Downing Street as long as he wants but every day he doesn’t return this money is another damning blow to the Conservative Party’s credibility.”

A Conservative spokeswoman said: “Mr Hester has made clear that, while he was rude, his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor the colour of her skin.

“He has since apologised.”

Ms Abbott, first elected as MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in 1987, has sat as an independent since April after the Labour whip was withdrawn following comments she made in The Observer suggesting Jewish, Irish and Traveller people are not subject to racism “all their lives”.

She is awaiting the outcome of an independent complaints process set up by Labour to investigate her remarks.

The Guardian reported that TPP has been paid more than £400 million by the NHS and other Government bodies since 2016, having been given responsibility to look after 60 million UK medical records.

According to the TPP website, Mr Hester founded the company in 1997 as he worked on integrated care models.

In 2015, the businessman was made a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to healthcare.