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Michael Foster on his shrieval year

PUBLISHED: 14:35 12 July 2017 | UPDATED: 14:35 12 July 2017

Michael Foster in ceremonial High sheriff's dress (Photo by Toby Phillips)

Michael Foster in ceremonial High sheriff's dress (Photo by Toby Phillips)

Toby Phillips

Michael Foster, former Labour MP for Hastings and Rye, is unique in having also acted as High Sheriff – a ceremonial office appointed by the Sovereign.

For High Sheriff of East Sussex 2016/17 Michael Foster, public service and private life go hand in hand.

A lifelong resident of East Sussex – he says he has never been away for longer than a fortnight – Michael, 71, entered Hastings Borough Council in his mid-20s. He first ran, unsuccessfully, in 1969 – when he was technically too young to vote – before becoming a fixture in local government. He won Hastings and Rye at the 1997 election, holding a number of positions until Labour’s last year in government, when he was Equalities Minister.

After three decades in party politics it came as something of a surprise when he was asked to accept the role of High Sheriff of East Sussex – a role in which the incumbent must display complete impartiality. In fact he is unique in having been both a Member of Parliament and a High Sheriff – the latter being a ceremonial position appointed each year by the Queen who ‘pricks’ their name on parchment.

Michael says: “Both in my previous political role and indeed in this past year as High Sheriff I have been gobsmacked by the amount of work that is done by voluntary organisations and in particular by the volunteers that serve them.”

He says his own greatest achievements as an MP “did not arise out of me being a particular MP for a particular constituency or supporting government policy,” for example the establishment of the Hastings Sierra Leone Friendship Link, which twinned the East Sussex town with the world’s poorest town. It happened after a colleague in the House of Commons, who had just travelled to Sierra Leone, approached him and told him about its parlous state – and noted that he’d visited a town there called Hastings. The twinning has led to a rich cultural exchange.

He thinks making contacts and forging links are an important part of the High Sheriff’s role too. “Both are community roles. Both give you opportunities of communication. In the local role of High Sheriff it’s talking to people and telling them about the needs of another group. Giving the weight of your office to a project applies in both spheres.”

The High Sheriff’s full ceremonial uniform is a replica of 17th century legal garb in rich velvet and lace. Michael jokes that he bought his from a sort of Ebay for High Sheriffs – meaning that it was secondhand (bought new, the uniform can command around £9,000). He’s delighted that it will stay in the county, having donated it to the Bexhill Museum in memory of one of his boyhood mentors, Christine Portch – who ran the Thalia School of Speech and Drama in Hastings and set up the Bexhill Museum of Costume and Social History in Manor Gardens.

Michael’s term as High Sheriff came to an end in April and life is gradually getting back to normal.

As well as running his eponymous employment law firm Michael is involved in a number of local charities. When he has some leisure time he likes to play tennis – he’s a member of Amherst Tennis Club – and table tennis. In fact he thinks he is still the parliamentary champion after beating Norman Lamont in the final in 2009 as there hasn’t been a table tennis competition since! 


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