Most politicians find the close of parliamentary sessions an opportune moment
to head for their constituencies for some welcome respite, or take a break
Baroness Noakes, Treasury spokeswoman for the Conservative Party, however,
returns to hers in an effort to canvass local opinion by knocking on doors.
After all, it’s the least she can do to help her husband, who has been a
local Tunbridge Wells counsellor for more than 15 years.
‘It’s great fun actually, to just talk to people and introduce ourselves.
Many don’t know who I am, and it’s great to be able to help local councillors
with this part of the work.’
It may come as a surprise to many to learn that when Baroness Noakes, then
Dame Shelia Masters, first began toying with the idea of politics, she ran for a
local election without any previous experience after some supporters in the
party raised the idea.
‘There were two of us who ran for the first time, not expecting to win and
even asked our mothers to pitch in and help delivering pamphlets… but when we
didn’t win we wanted a recount.’
She laughs now at her novice approach to winning elections and realises she
was lucky in never needing to do the gruelling campaign work that so many have
to do in order to pave their way to popularity. Masters was simply identified as
an individual who could deliver and who got things done.
Long before even vague thoughts of politics entered her mind, a young Sheila
Masters began her young adult life shortly after finishing her law degree at the
University Of Bristol with desires to join a city law firm.
‘But these were closed to women unless you wanted to join a local firm and
specialise in family law. In addition to it being very expensive to go through
the bar even then, you also needed to have family contacts to get in as a woman
and I didn’t want to pursue that,’ says the baroness.
With that she dismissed her plans for the legal field and headed for
‘I qualified as an accountant, went through the tax bar, and my grand plan
for becoming a lawyer dissolved. In doing the exams, I realised I had an
aptitude for this and it was my motivation to move on.
‘I got promoted fairly quickly and I did the sensible thing and stayed,’ she
Looking back, Noakes acknowledges that the intake of women was still tiny in
comparison to the hundreds of thousands who have since qualified: ‘When I joined
in 1970, there was an intake of 100, of which only four were women – that was
the first time there was a group of women, such as ours,’ she says.
Despite the closed-door policy to women in the legal and accounting
professions, Noakes believes that KPMG, then Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co, was
‘In fact the interviewer, who was a naval man, told me that the only thing
different would be the fact that the director’s meeting rooms did not have
At the time, Noakes was still very keen on specialising in the complexities
of tax and came out top in the institute exams. Just when the firm gave Noakes
the green light on doing tax full-time, she decided she was interested in audits
and flotations. However, events overtook matters and she was seconded to the
Treasury between 1979 and 1981.
‘I realised there were incredibly intelligent people working in this sector,
with vast amounts of knowledge,’ she says.
Point of interest
By this time, Noakes was also partner at KPMG and her interest in the public
sector was piqued. She began specialising in public sector efficiency studies,
investigating in particular British Rail Mersey Docks and the Harbour Company,
which the firm worked on for the Department of Transport.
The work led to her being appointed director of finances at the Department of
Health where she sat on the NHS Management Executive: ‘The NHS review was
announced. I had to see the implementation through, which affected 15,000 staff.
There were lots of deficits which I had to squeeze out,’ she says, by then
comfortable working under the Tory-led government.
Upon her arrival, she found the NHS finances ‘most shocking’.
‘It seems [NHS finance managers] had the idea that you could run at a deficit
and run the creditors so that they extend you a little more each time. They held
the belief that it was ok for accounts to run themselves on credit. But the fact
is that you can never catch up. It was an old-fashioned approach to finance.
‘I spent most of my time making sure they understood that we have to balance
our books,’ Noakes says.
Her managerial approach is renowned to be a touch fierce for many. One former
colleague says she was the kind of person who could easily ‘steamroll’ others.
‘It was easy to be brushed aside by her – you had to stand up for yourself,
and then she respected you,’ he says.
Nonetheless Noakes did contribute to overhauling the NHS finance system,
implementing a plan that resulted in each hospital being autonomous in its
financial management, and therefore accountable.
In 1991 she returned to the firm and got involved in privatisation work where
she took up the chairmanship of KPMG’s international governmental practice,
which focused on research and analysis, pooling ideas in sectors such as
She began overseeing work done by public-private partnerships – then known as
the public finance initiative. ‘The current government broadened the basics into
PPP. Labour started using PFI in very big way, so much so that there was such a
great explosion of PFI so that you couldn’t do anything without it.’
She’s wary about where the continued use of PFI will take us. ‘I don’t think
we know what the effects of PFI are. We’re still going to learn that somewhere
down the line,’ she says.
Her achievements in government were rewarded by a call from William Hague in
the Christmas of 2000 while skiing. He invited her to join the House of Lords.
‘It was no surprise as it had been suggested in several private
conversations,’ she said.
Dame Masters dropped her maiden name, became Baroness Noakes, and proved
formidable in bringing her highly specialised knowledge to bear on parliamentary
Labour of love
The results were two major coups for her party; first in exposing Labour’s
lack of thoroughness in trying to push through the identity card scheme without
proper costings, which later emerged as billions more than their initial £600m
Late last year, she successfully obtained a last-minute inclusion of a clause
subjecting the Public Oversight Board to the Freedom of Information Act, in
specific relation to their audit inspection reports.
‘I don’t know if there will be a third, but we’re still putting in major
changes too other bills, such as the statistics bill and the pensions bill.
‘Being part of the opposition means it’s rather difficult to initiate
things,’ says Noakes.
‘I do take time out – I enjoy the opera immensely and we have race horses,’ she
And what will be her next coup? ‘That would be telling,’ she says.
Noakes hotly debated the contentious identity card scheme, proposed by
Labour. The Home Office put the original cost at £584m. Noakes announced in
parliament the true cost, of a massive £19.2bn and as a result, plans to
implement it were put on hold.
As part of the Public Services productivity Panel (1988-2000) Noakes and her
colleagues (John Mayo, finance director of Marconi, and John Makinson, FD of
media group Pearson) revealed that a 3% increase in productivity of government
bodies would save government £6.3bn a year.
Noakes is committed to ensuring transparency. In January she proposed the
government spending transparency bill – which, if successful, will allow a
publicly available, free searchable website where citizens can find out how much
the government has spent with individual suppliers such as EDS, or on particular
things, such as travel and entertainment.
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