Frank Hester: Who is Tory donor at centre of Diane Abbott racism row?

Frank Hester has joined previous government trade missions abroad.

He is the Conservative Party's biggest donor, has rubbed shoulders with the likes of David Cameron and Boris Johnson and has built a business worth an estimated £1bn.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer called him the man "bankrolling" the current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

But until recently, Frank Hester's profile remained relatively low.

That all changed when comments he allegedly made about MP Diane Abbott were reported by a national newspaper.

So, who is Frank Hester and how did he find himself at the centre of a political storm?

The son of Irish immigrants who trained to be a priest

Hester grew up in Armley, one of Leeds' poorest suburbs. Credit: PA

One of five siblings, Hester, 57, grew up in Armley, a deprived suburb of Leeds.

Posting on X, he said his parents met in the city – his father had emigrated after "building hay sheds on farms in Ireland". His mother had also moved from Ireland.

They started a plastering business, which itself became a million-pound enterprise.

Hester said his mother, who was in charge of payroll, "inspired me to write code".

He wrote computer software which enabled her to complete her tasks more quickly and went on to develop a career as a software architect.

But, before going to university to study computer science, Hester trained to be a priest.

"This made mum very proud – she brought us up in a strongly religious household," he wrote on X.

A £1bn business

In 1997, having worked in the financial sector as a software architect, Hester founded the Phoenix Partnership (TPP) in Leeds.

Its headquarters are in the suburb of Horsforth.

According to the company website "he wanted to remove the administrative burden from his wife, a family doctor, so that she could focus on delivering care for her patients".

The company developed a programme which initially linked one GP practice in Bradford to a local hospital, to improve integrated care.

The Phoenix Partnership (TPP), based in Horsforth, Leeds. Credit: ITV News

The system is now used extensively across the UK and abroad, including by more than 2,600 GP practices and a third of acute mental health trusts, as well as in China, the Middle East and the Caribbean.

Hester has been on numerous government trade missions, including those led by the then prime minister David Cameron and Tory grandee Kenneth Clarke.

TPP recorded a turnover of £80m with profit before tax of £40m last year, according to Companies House.

Hester was paid a salary of £510,000. He is thought to have a house worth £2.1million in Leeds.

By Hester’s own estimation, TPP is worth £1bn after winning more than £400m of government contracts in recent years.

As sole director and shareholder of TPP, he is not answerable to a board or shareholders.

Hester was awarded an OBE in 2015 for services to healthcare. He made last year's Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated fortune of £415m.

But on social media he is keen to emphasise the inclusiveness of the business he runs, where employees have "bacon sandwiches for breakfast and a free bar early evening at the local pub" on Fridays.

The biggest donor with the low profile

According to Electoral Commission records, Hester donated £10m to the Tories last year.

Half was a donation to Rishi Sunak from his personal funds. Another £5m came from TPP.

As well as his trade missions with David Cameron and Kenneth Clarke, Hester's company was visited by health secretary Jeremy Hunt last year.

In November, the prime minister accepted a £15,000 donation for the use of a helicopter.

Despite his vast wealth and influence, Hester has remained a relatively unknown figure until now. He has fewer than 650 followers on X.

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What did Frank Hester say about Diane Abbott?

Diane Abbott described the comments as ‘frightening’ Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA

According to The Guardian, Mr Hester made remarks about Hackney MP Ms Abbott in 2019 during a meeting at TPP's Leeds headquarters.

The newspaper reported that he 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."

How has Frank Hester responded and what has been the wider reaction?

A statement released on Hester's X account on 11 March said he "accepts that he was rude about Diane Abbot in a private meeting several years ago", but added his criticism had "nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin".

The statement added: "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."

In a follow-up post he added: "The UK benefits immensely from the rich diversity of people - like my parents - who had roots in another land, religion and culture. We should celebrate those differences which have made us the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy.

"And we should have the confidence to discuss our differences openly and even playfully without seeking to cause offence."

Ms Abbott called the alleged remarks "alarming".

In her own statement she 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."

ITV News reporter Cari Davies explains how party donations work

Sir Keir Starmer has called on Rishi Sunak to return party donations made by Hester.

At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, he asked the prime minister if he was "proud to be bankrolled by someone using racist and misogynist language?".

Having initially stopped short of calling Hester's remarks racist, Mr Sunak replied saying "the alleged comments were wrong, they are racist, he has rightly apologised for them and that should be accepted".

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