As Chief Executive of the Government's Money Advice Service (MAS), it is important that Caroline Rookes remembers at first hand what it feels like to struggle for money.
She learned it early on at Lancaster University, when her boyfriend had to go to his tutor in her first year to borrow £25 to buy her an engagement ring. This was not the time to look forward to an expensive wedding.
Her experience of financial struggles herself, and observing the chaos into which families can spiral when they lose control of money matters in her first job at a social security office, keep her focused on the day-to-day reality of poverty in a recession.
“It’s not just about telling people they need to look after their money,” she insists. “It’s about changing their behaviour and that starts with understanding what drives their behaviour. The idea is to make people more independent and put them in charge of their own finances.”
Independence is really what Lancaster gave Caroline, but in a context much broader than just finance. She arrived at the university full of trepidation as a 17 year old from London, partly motivated by a desire to be near the Fylde coast where she’d spent much of her childhood, but also because few universities were prepared to accept such a young student.
She left with the potential to take on some of the top jobs advising the government. Her last job in the Department of Work and Pensions as Director of Private Pensions involved a complete revamp of the pension system and the introduction automatic enrolment and NEST (National Employment Savings Trust). She was awarded the CBE in 2010.
“University was a very big transition for me coming straight from school,” says Caroline. “It helped me understand myself and take responsibility for myself.”
Academically, she set out to study English, Economics and Maths, but during her first year gave up the latter. Although she majored in English, Lancaster allowed her to complete four of her nine modules in Economics. This proved to be the perfect preparation for her career responding to the UK’s economic demands and setting out her recommendations in a clear and persuasive manner.
Although she admits she did not work very hard, she was interested in the communication aspects of her course at Lancaster, which have stood her in good stead to this day: “This is so important,” she says. “If you cannot communicate, you can not lead.”
Lancaster is where she grew up. She loved life on campus and met her husband to be in Freshers’ week. She spent her second year living out in Morecambe in a holiday flat, where her abiding memories are of nylon sheets and winter winds so strong that she could not open the flat’s internal doors.
At the end of the course she had no idea about her future, other than marriage. Her civil servant father was not prepared to see her unemployed, so arranged a temporary job which led to her first permanent position in a local benefits office in London. Part of her duties were to interview benefit seekers in their homes.
“That was a real eye opener,” says Rookes, “It was a salutary lesson to see the chaos of some people’s lives as a result of financial problems and to understand that there are sections of society that suffer such very difficult times.”
Her trajectory since then has been inexorably upwards. She was soon promoted to head office at the DHSS, where she was involved in cutting-edge projects such as payment of benefits by post (revolutionary at the time) which required her to write a 30-page form aimed at people with a reading age of nine years. As she progressed, she was involved in a number of benefit reviews.
Among the many jobs she enjoyed was as Private Secretary to then Conservative Social Security Minister Michael Portillo, who she found ‘a joy to work for’. She was fascinated at the regime change in 1997 when the Labour government came in. She was suddenly working with ministers on christian name terms, rather than the more formal Tory style of ‘Minister’.
She moved to the Inland Revenue in 1999 and held posts as Director of Charities and as Director of Savings, Pensions and Share Schemes, during which time she led a major simplification of the pension tax regime. In her last job at the Department of Work and Pensions, automatic enrolment and NEST were introduced - the biggest project of her life. Her role at the Money Advice Service started in January 2013.
"What epitomises many if not all of the jobs I have had" she says, "Is that they make a real difference to people's lives."