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Cabinet minister Mark Harper denies Tories have a problem with race

A senior cabinet minister has denied the Conservative Party has a problem with race after accepting at least £10m from a donor who is accused of racism.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper told the BBC he was in "the most ethnically diverse cabinet there has ever been".

Mr Harper said his party welcomes members "whatever their race".

Donor Frank Hester apologised after reportedly saying ex-Labour MP Diane Abbott made him want to "hate all black women" and that she "should be shot".

The party has refused repeated calls to return Mr Hester's money, despite labelling his alleged comments as "racist" and "wrong".

Mr Harper also refused to comment on reports the Conservatives have accepted a further £5m from Mr Hester, which would take his total donations to the party to £15m in under a year.

He told the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme he was not involved in party finance but "if in the future there's a future donation, that will be declared in the usual way".

When asked by Laura Kuenssberg if the Tory party has "a problem with race", Mr Harper said: "Absolutely not.

"As the prime minister said this week, we are a party proudly led by the first Britain Asian prime minister."

He said the current cabinet is "the most ethnically diverse cabinet there has ever been".

"We are a party that welcomes people from across the UK whatever their background, whatever their race, if they share our values and approach to politics," he added.

Mr Harper argued that "we should accept" Mr Hester's apology.

But former Downing Street advisor Samuel Kasumu said he was disappointed in Mr Harper's argument.

Having the "most diverse cabinet in history "was not a "get out of jail free card" on race issues, Mr Kasumu said.

The former advisor to Boris Johnson has been a frequent critic of Conservative Party's approach to race since leaving government in a row over a racism report.

Paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Mr Kasumu said: "It is not the colour of your skin that matters when it comes to tackling racism, discrimination and bringing communities together - it has to be the content of your character and your willingness to lead."

Mr Kasumu added "some of our most divisive politicians are people like Suella Braverman", the former home secretary who is of Indian descent.

On Sunday, Baroness Warsi - the Conservative's first Muslim chairperson - said her party had become known as "the institutionally xenophobic and racist party".

Speaking on Politics North, Baroness Warsi, who chaired the Conservative Party between 2010 and 2012, said: "We should not be a party that takes money from people who have the kind of views that [Mr Hester] is alleged to have had."

Still 'a problem'

The Guardian reports that Mr Hester made remarks about Ms Abbott while criticising a female executive at another organisation during a meeting at his company's headquarters in 2019.

The newspaper reported that he went on to say: "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 BBC has not heard a recording, or been able to independently verify the alleged remarks.

Mr Hester, an IT executive, apologised for making "rude" comments about Ms Abbott but said his remarks "had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin".

In a social media post, Mr Hester later said he "abhors racism", which he described as a "poison that has no place in public life".

The Guardian's investigation has led to a week of political backlash against Mr Hester, forcing Ms Abbott into the centre of a debate around racism in politics.

In an article Ms Abbott, who now sits as an independent MP, hit out at racism within both the Conservatives and Labour.

She argued the government's Rwanda deportation scheme showed they intend to play "the race card" as the next election approaches. Ms Abbott also criticised Labour, saying "racism in politics is not just a matter for any one political party".

The Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington was suspended by Labour in April last year after writing in the Observer that Irish, Jewish and Traveller people were not subject to racism "all their lives". She later withdrew her remarks and apologised "for any anguish caused".

Former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman told the programme that Mr Harper's comments proved there was still "a problem".

"You have to recognise that even though there's been an advance of black people and women into politics there is still an even greater backlash and that's what people are facing," she said.

"The danger to tackling discrimination is complacency."

Ms Harman added the reason the Tories were "hesitant" to criticise Mr Hester and hand back his donations was "because they've accepted such a huge amount of money".

But she said Labour "absolutely have further to go" on tackling racism.

Ms Harman said: "Who can say there is no problem? We've got to recognise it's been an evil terrible problem."

Shadow cabinet minister Jonathan Ashworth said that the Labour Party "must not be complacent about racism - we must challenge it".

"We must challenge Islamophobia and antisemitism if we see that in our party as we do when we see it in society at large," he added.