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Ministers back Yorkshire software tycoon in Diane Abbott racism row

Cabinet ministers have rallied round to defend millionaire Tory donor and Yorkshire software tycoon Frank Hester after a newspaper reported he had said looking at MP Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women,” and that the politician “should be shot.”

The comments, said to have been made in 2019, have sparked outrage since they were revealed by The Guardian.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride called the remarks “inappropriate” but said Hester “has apologised and I think we need to move on from that.”

Energy Minister Graham Stuart, meanwhile, told Times Radio that he would “hesitate” to call the comments racist and added that party donors shouldn’t be “cancelled” for remarks made in the past.

Stuart told the channel: “I’m hesitating to call it that because I don’t like to sit in judgement on these things.

“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.”

The Guardian reported that Hester 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.”

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

Hester reportedly also said that another, unnamed, female executive he considered incompetent should likewise be shot.

Hester has not directly confirmed or denied the claims, although he took to Twitter to say that he “abhors” racism and has called the MP to apologise twice since the alleged remarks surfaced:

Responding to the comments in a statement to ITV, Abbott said: “It is 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.”

She added: “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.”

Abbott is understood to have reported the remarks to police.

Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP have all called for the Tories to immediately return the £10m in donations it has received from the businessman in the last year. Hester is the party’s biggest ever donor.

Labour chairwoman Anneliese Dodds said: “They must return every penny, in full without delay. Rishi Sunak has claimed that ‘words matter’. Keeping that money would suggest the Conservatives condone these disturbing comments.”

Hester runs Leeds-based healthcare tech firm The Phoenix Partnership (TPP), which has won around £400m of NHS and government contracts since 2016.

Abbott herself currently sits as an independent MP after she had the Labour whip withdrawn over a letter to The Observer which suggested Jewish, Irish and Traveller people are not subject to racism “all their lives.”

She has since apologised for the remarks, and several Labour figures, including former ministers Ed Balls and Dawn Butler, have called for the whip to be reinstated to show support for the MP. Abbott, the member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987, is both the first black woman elected to parliament and its longest-serving black MP.

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