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Biggest Tory donor said looking at Diane Abbott makes you ‘want to hate all black women’

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The Conservative party’s biggest donor told colleagues that looking at Diane Abbott makes you “want to hate all black women” and said the MP “should be shot”, the Guardian can reveal.

Frank Hester, who has given £10m to the Tories in the past year, said in the meeting that he did not hate all black women. But he also said that seeing Abbott, who is Britain’s longest-serving black MP, on TV meant “you just want to hate all black women because she’s there”.

He also called all his “foreign” workers together to defend himself against online claims that he had made racist remarks. During this meeting he said he abhorred racism and told his team their progress would not be “based on the colour of your skin, your ethnicity, where your parents are from”. However, he also said “we take the piss out of the fact that all our Chinese girls sit together in Asian corner”.

The remarks raise questions about the workplace behaviour and professionalism of a man whose money will be helping to bankroll the Conservative party’s general election campaign.

Hester, a businessman from West Yorkshire, runs a healthcare technology firm, the Phoenix Partnership (TPP), which has been paid more than £400m by the NHS and other government bodies since 2016, primarily to look after 60m UK medical records. He has profited from £135m of contracts with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in less than four years.

TPP’s lawyers said the company fostered a diverse and inclusive workplace with a significant proportion of staff from minority ethnic backgrounds, and that Hester’s comments had been distorted and taken out of context, and were not a true or accurate characterisation of the company or Hester.

Hester gave £5m to the Conservatives in May 2023 and announced a further £5m donation this month, which had been accepted by the party from his company in November last year. With months to go before the next general election, a party spokesperson confirmed he was now its “biggest ever donor”.

In an interview last week, Hester praised Rishi Sunak for embracing artificial intelligence, saying: “The future is AI and we’ve got a prime minister who gets it.”

As part of a months-long investigation including interviews with dozens of former TPP employees, many of them told the Guardian that Hester runs a strict workplace environment at the firm’s headquarters in Leeds, with staff told to make sure they raise their hands straight up when asking a question and instructed to clean fingerprints off the office glass if they leave marks.

The Guardian has learned of a 2019 meeting at TPP’s headquarters in which Hester spoke about an executive from another organisation, saying: “She’s shit. She’s the shittest person. Honestly I try not to be sexist but when I meet somebody like [the executive], I just …

“It’s like trying not to be racist but you see Diane Abbott on the TV, and you’re just like I hate, 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. She’s stupid … If we can get [the executive] being unprofessional we can get her sacked. It’s not as good as her dying. It would be much better if she died. She’s consuming resource. She’s eating food that other people could eat. You know?”

Abbott was a Labour MP for more than 35 years until she was suspended by the party in April last year after suggesting that Jewish, Irish and Traveller people were not subject to racism “all their lives”. She is awaiting a decision on whether she will be reinstated.

Diane Abbott is Britain’s longest-serving black MP. Photograph: Beresford Hodge/Reuters

On a separate occasion in 2019, Hester called everyone who is “foreign” among his employees to a meeting where he defended himself against online reviews said to be from former staff accusing him of racist remarks.

In that meeting, he said: “I make a lot of jokes about racism, about our different creeds and cultures. But I just want to assure you that it is just the most abhorrent thing.”

He added: “I want to clear the air and make sure we all know where we are, what we stand for, and we take the piss out of the fact that all our Chinese girls sit together in Asian corner, which they do.”

He later said: “I would like us to be loving and accepting of each other. We are all humans.”

TPP’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck, said Hester was conscious that many of his employees from Asia were young and isolated, and he wanted to make them feel welcome and encourage them to integrate. They added that TPP offered to fly Asian employees back to their families in business class when lockdowns were lifted during the Covid pandemic.

Hester, 57, who was made an OBE under David Cameron, has spoken approvingly of Sunak and attended the prime minister’s AI summit with Elon Musk in November shortly after his first £5m donation was made public.

His lawyers said the fact that his donation was to a party led by Britain’s first Hindu prime minister, a politician of Indian heritage, was further evidence of him embracing diversity.

The TPP workplace is governed by a handbook containing exacting rules. These include instructions on how to be direct when speaking, with “yes or no” answers, and without using phrases such as “I think so” or “sort of” as well as a directive on how employees must raise their hands straight up when they wish to speak, not “half-heartedly”.

Employees are told to “shout up” to the open plan office with an apology if they are late for work, and walk in and interrupt meetings if they have something to say. They must live within a defined radius of the office in the Leeds suburb of Horsforth, excluding the city centre.

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Carter-Ruck said the handbook existed to maintain high standards and showed the firm took the welfare of its staff seriously, citing early finishes on Fridays and the requirement to take holidays.

Ex-staffers have described how Hester gave huge perks to employees, including £300 for birthday meals and free drinks in the local pub on Fridays. He would take large groups of workers on week-long sailing trips to the British Virgin Islands and Croatia, with the costs paid for by the company. Carter-Ruck said such perks and higher-than-average remuneration indicated a positive working environment.

However, some former TPP workers claimed that many high-achieving graduates were taken on only to be abruptly fired within weeks or months of joining.

TPP’s lawyers disputed that its turnover was high, saying two-thirds of staff had been with the company for more than five years and nearly three-quarters had chosen to stay for at least three years.

The company’s main clients are the NHS and the DHSC. Figures provided by Tussell, which analyses government spending, said that government, NHS and local authorities had paid more than £440m to TPP companies since 2016. Hester, the sole owner, collected dividends of £33.5m for the last five years for which accounts for the TPP Group are available.

A TPP spokesperson said: “As the safe and trusted custodians of 80m medical records in the UK and around the world, we always hire the best people for the job, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or any other characteristic.

“We take care of our people and celebrate diversity in our workplace. We reward our staff well, encouraging them to work collaboratively, to take ownership of their responsibilities, and to demonstrate the commitment and professionalism that the NHS, patients and our customers around the world deserve.

“Having recently witnessed the tragic consequences that can be caused when software systems of major public services fail, we are proud to demand the highest standards of our staff to ensure we can continue to safely and reliably support our health service.”

The Conservative party declined to comment.

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