Clegg's own work experience casts shadow over social mobility drive

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Indy Politics

Nick Clegg had to own up to some embarrassing truths about his own privileged background yesterday as he launched his campaign to give everyone more equal opportunities in life.

The Deputy Prime Minister had announced that he wanted to create a society in which a person's job opportunities would depend on "what you know, not who you know... not on who your father's friends are" – with the specific target of cracking down on unpaid work experience.

A series of initiatives designed to improve social mobility, which has been a recurring theme for Mr Clegg, included a call for companies to allocate internships through open competition rather than being allocated to the "well-connected".

But it soon emerged that Mr Clegg's first experience in the world of work came precisely through one of his father's friends. In the gap between leaving Westminster School, where the fees are £29,400 a year, and going to Cambridge University, Mr Clegg secured an unpaid internship at a Finnish bank through his father, Nicholas, who was chairman of the United Trust Bank.

After university, he obtained a job in Brussels with the EU trade commissioner, Leon Brittan, after being recommended by a neighbour of the Clegg family, Lord Carrington, who had served alongside Mr Brittan in Margaret Thatcher's government.

The disclosure brought accusations of hypocrisy last night, but Mr Clegg responded: "I do not deny that I have been lucky but the plans I set out today will help others from a much wider range of backgrounds to get the same opportunities I enjoyed."

The furore overshadowed the deeper issue of child poverty, as Mr Clegg was warned by charities that his Government's spending cuts would actually increase the numbers of families facing financial hardship.

Mr Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, were setting out detailed plans yesterday with the aim of fulfilling the Government's promise to eradicate child poverty by the year 2020 and to boost social mobility. They said moves to switch all benefit claimants to a new universal credit between 2013 and 2017 would raise around 600,000 adults and 350,000 children out of poverty.

The strategy to "break the cycle of deprivation" also outlines proposals to expand numbers of health visitors and improve relationship advice for couples, as well as introducing the "pupil premium" to raise aspirations in schools in hard-pressed areas.

But Helen Dent, the chief executive of Family Action, said ministers were "shooting down" their own strategy through cuts to Sure Start, as well as welfare and tax changes that "will put huge strain on disadvantaged families, particularly those with babies and young children". She said: "Some babies will literally be born broke as a result of measures this Government has introduced."

Fiona Weir, the chief executive of the charity Gingerbread, warned that single parents would be on average £500 a year worse off because of cut to tax credits that come into force today.

Bob Reitemeier, chief executive at the Children's Society, said that to succeed in reducing child poverty a Government "cannot be blind to the fact that the amount of money a parent has does make a real difference to their children".

On unpaid internships, Mr Clegg announced that civil service internships would be advertised on a central website from 2012, ending informal placements within Whitehall, and that the Liberal Democrats would put their own internship system "on a much more transparent footing".

However, the campaign group Intern Aware claimed that the party was one of the "worst offenders" for unpaid internships.

Ministers are setting up a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which will initially be chaired by the former Labour Cabinet minister, Alan Milburn.