The coalition Government will try to boost social mobility by "improving people's lives" rather than giving them handouts, Nick Clegg insisted today.
The Deputy Prime Minister accused Labour of spending "huge sums" on welfare for low-income households without any "discernable impact" on the life chances of their children.
Mr Clegg confirmed that former minister Alan Milburn has been appointed as the Government's independent reviewer on social mobility.
Speaking at an event organised by the CentreForum think-tank, the DPM said: "Under Labour huge sums of money were spent pushing low-income households just above the statistically defined level of household income - sometimes by just a few pounds a week - but with no discernible impact on the real life chances of the next generation.
"Tackling poverty of opportunity requires a more rounded approach. Welfare reform, for example, should be based on the need to improve people's lives, not just raise their incomes.
"And I know this is what is animating the work of Iain Duncan Smith at the Department for Work and Pensions."
Setting out the coalition's "ethical and economic" imperatives for improving social mobility, Mr Clegg rejected criticism that its only goal was cutting public spending.
"Let me be clear: tackling the deficit is our immediate priority. But it is not our be-all and end-all. This Government is about much more than cuts," he said.
"Our determination to fix the deficit is matched by our determination to create a more socially mobile society."
Mr Clegg said the Government's actions to improve life chances would be for the "long term" and take "years, if not decades, to bear fruit".
He indicated there would be an emphasis on pre-school education, even though it "will not alter the statistics on income distribution or household poverty levels".
"But it will change the lives of the children who benefit," he added.
Mr Clegg highlighted research suggesting that parental engagement in their children's development was four times more important than their social class or wealth.
"This is not an area where the state can simply pull a lever or two and put things right," he said.
"These are also potentially perilous waters for politicians. But at the same time we must not remain silent on what is an enormously important issue. Parents hold the fortunes of the children they bring into this world in their hands."
He said the Government was determined to tackle the "educational apartheid" between vocational and academic learning, as well as reforming higher education funding to ensure access for students from poorer backgrounds.
The coalition's "direction of travel" was demonstrated by its decision to increase the personal threshold for income tax by £1,000, meaning 880,000 would not pay anything at all.
A pupil premium was also being introduced which would see extra money targeted on education for the poorest 15-26% of children, Mr Clegg said.
"In five years' time we want to be able to look back and say that the children born in 2015 are less constrained by the circumstances of their birth," Mr Clegg said.
The Liberal Democrat leader - "holding the fort" for Prime Minister David Cameron while he is on holiday - admitted that he had enjoyed a "lucky upbringing", with supportive parents who were able to send him to fee-paying Westminster School.
But he said the impact background had on children's life chances "offended the basic British sense of fairness" and had to be tackled.
Mr Clegg said Mr Milburn - a former health secretary under Labour - would scrutinise the coalition's progress on social mobility.
"Building on the enormous contribution he made in his report for the last government on fair access to the professions, Alan will now be holding the coalition Government's feet to the fire," the Deputy Prime Minister said.Reuse content