My Lords, it is a great honour and privilege to introduce myself to you today. I would like to thank noble Lords from all sides of the House, officials, staff members and the wonderful doorkeepers, all of whom have welcomed me into this House so warmly. I am particularly grateful to my sponsors, my noble friends Lady Jenkin of Kennington and Lord Black of Brentwood.
Even as I stand before you, I have to pinch myself that I am here. You see, my long journey to the Palace of Westminster began in Petrograd in 1917, 100 years ago, where my mother was born on the eve of the revolution. It was a long and winding road that brought my family and me, against all odds, from revolution-torn Russia to Brexit-torn Westminster. My mother’s family came from the old Russian aristocracy. They fled the Bolsheviks. My grandfather, a tsarist officer, fought in the White army. In the end, destitute, they found refuge in Manchuria. After all kinds of trials and tribulations, my mother found herself a young woman in Hanoi. There, she married a French army officer but a year later, in 1945, he was killed fighting the Japanese. She was left alone, homeless and eight months pregnant with my half-sister, hiding from the Japanese in Saigon. The wheel of fate turned again. She was rescued by a French naval officer after he had survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. They married and I am the result. When I think of my parents, I think of fortitude, suffering and survival. They were together for 60 years and set me a fine example. My mother died last year at the age of 100. My only regret is that neither of my parents is here to listen to me today.
My parents sent me to the French Lycée in South Kensington. I took my degree at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies and began my career in the City. I was one of the first women to be licensed as a commodity broker. Working in a hard-driving male environment in the 1980s certainly had its challenges but I survived and, though I do say so myself, I ended up becoming one of my firm’s top producers. However, just like my parents and grandparents, I have lived a life full of peaks and troughs. Speaking before your Lordships today for the very first time is one of the highest peaks. It ranks with arriving in Washington in 1997 with my husband, Christopher, as he took up his post as ambassador only 24 hours after we married. What a honeymoon those five and a half years proved to be: we arrived with Monica Lewinsky and left with Saddam Hussein. In between, we also experienced the horrors of 9/11, which are to be remembered today.
No trough could have been deeper than when, in 1994, my children were illegally retained by their German father in Germany. During the next 10 years, despite the supposed international conventions, I saw my sons for a total of only 24 hours. To be separated from your children in this way is beyond a nightmare. I could not reach them, I constantly worried about them and, even today, I find it difficult to talk about. I was confronted by a merciless German legal system. I was buried under huge legal bills, and I ended up having to sell everything I had. I lost my job. I queued for unemployment benefits in Fulham Road, still unable to see my sons. I know how it feels to be a victim of an injustice—I will never forget it. This is why the protection of children is a subject on which I will always want to speak.
Even in this nightmare, there have been some points of light. It drove me to set up a charity against child abduction, as I soon discovered that many other parents were in a similar predicament. I ran it for 19 years; we achieved quite a lot, not least thanks to the help of the police and the Home Office under Theresa May. It introduced me to politics, as I pressed my case and that of other parents with the White House, the US Congress, the Élysée, the French Senate, the Belgium Senate, and, of course, noble Lords and Members of the other place. On points of light, in the photographs of my introduction to this House, you will see my sons—now grown men—standing by me, smiling proudly, having come from Germany to see their mother’s ceremony. My charitable work also took me to the European Commission and the Parliament in Brussels, where my experiences shaped my opinion of the European Union, just as my experiences in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, when I went to visit my aunt in Moscow, made me realise the folly of the socialist dream and how lucky I was to be living in the United Kingdom.
I arrived in London as a French citizen of Franco-Russian blood. I quickly fell in love with this country—with its customs and respect for individual freedom and democracy. This is why I chose to become a British citizen. It was not forced upon me; it was not a requirement of my job, or of marriage. Though views may differ about France, I was not even fleeing a totalitarian regime. I felt I belonged here: British is what I wanted to be.
This background has given me a very particular view on the matters before us this afternoon in the Trade Bill, which I support because it lays the foundation of an independent trade policy. We should not let our divisions and differences of opinion over Europe get us down. This is democracy at work—a sign of self-confidence, and strength. We should face our future with the fortitude and optimism of our ancestors who, time without number, overcame the challenges that confront this nation. I say this to your Lordships as someone who is both a true Brit and a true European. Thank you.