Tory donor Frank Hester apologises after reports of Diane Abbott comments

A major Conservative Party donor said he is “deeply sorry” after reportedly saying former Labour MP Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” and that she “should be shot”.

Frank Hester, chief executive of The Phoenix Partnership (TPP), has admitted making “rude” comments, which were first reported by The Guardian, but said they had “nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are calling on the Tories to return the money Mr Hester has donated to the party.

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

He individually donated £5 million to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s party in May and gave another £5 million via his healthcare software firm in November.

The Guardian reported that Mr Hester’s remarks about Ms Abbott were made in 2019, meaning that they likely occurred when she was shadow home secretary under former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The newspaper reported that during a meeting at his Leeds company headquarters, Mr Hester, having previously criticised an executive at another organisation, went on to discuss Ms Abbott, the first black woman elected to Parliament.

He reportedly said: “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”.

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

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

“The Guardian is right when it quotes Frank saying he abhors racism, not least because he experienced it as the child of Irish immigrants in the 1970s.

“He rang Diane Abbott twice today to try to apologise directly for the hurt he has caused her, and is deeply sorry for his remarks.

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

But Tory opponents have seized on the remarks and urged the governing party to give back the cash Mr Hester and his company have donated.

Anneliese Dodds, Labour Party chairwoman, said: “These comments are reprehensible.

“Frank Hester is the Conservative Party’s biggest ever donor, as well as a personal donor to the Prime Minister, it is therefore vital that Rishi Sunak and the Tories return his donations, in full without delay.

“Rishi Sunak has claimed that ‘words matter’, and he must know that holding on to that money would suggest the Conservatives condone these disturbing comments. Sunak must return every penny.”

The Lib Dems made the same call, with Wendy Chamberlain, the party’s chief whip, also urging Mr Sunak to rule out “any future peerage” for Mr Hester.

Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, went further with his criticisms during remarks in the Commons, saying Mr Hester had used “utterly revolting, racist and inciteful language”.

Wes Streeting
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting was critical of Frank Hester’s remarks (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

Addressing MPs, Mr Streeting called on the Prime Minister to also apologise to Ms Abbott.

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.”

James Daly, deputy chairman of the Tory Party, told Times Radio the remarks were “not words I would have used” and that he was “pleased” Mr Hester had apologised.

Downing Street directed questions about Mr Hester’s comments to the Conservative Party.

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.

TPP describes the firm as providing “leading software that is transforming healthcare worldwide”.

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

Mr Hester has been invited on several government trade missions in the past, including visiting India with then-prime minister David Cameron in 2013.

He appeared at number 321 on the 2023 Sunday Times Rich List, with the newspaper estimating his wealth at £415 million.

The Rich List said Mr Hester spotted an opportunity to build IT software for the NHS “when his GP wife grumbled about her computers at work”.