BAD parenting can harm a child’s potential more than poverty, UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said as he suggested there were better ways than benefits to help children from poor backgrounds.

Mr Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, risked a row with the Conservative Party right after he claimed that making Britain more socially mobile was as big a priority for the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government as deficit reduction.

“Our determination to fix the deficit is matched by our determination to create a more socially mobile society,” he said. Conservative critics claimed that such moves would be at the expense of the middle class.

Speaking to CentreForum, the liberal think-tank, Mr Clegg said that huge sums spent by the previous Labour government on welfare for low-income households had no “discernible impact” on the life chances of children.

He added that parenting skills could be a greater factor than poverty in determining life chances.

Mr Clegg acknowledged that his educational background – Westminster School and Cambridge University – helped him to achieve his position today.

He cited a study that suggested the amount of interest shown by a parent in their child’s education was four times more important than socio-economic background in explaining education results at 16. But he said that possible solutions – which could include more flexible parental leave or parenting classes at school – had dangers.

“This is not an area where the state can simply pull a lever or two and put things right. 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,” he said.

“I know, like any mother or father, how difficult it can be to find the time and the energy to help, for example, with your children’s homework at the end of a busy day. But the evidence is unambiguous: if we give them that kind of attention and support when they are young, they will feel the benefits for the rest of their lives.”

He also said that the middle-class monopoly on universities meant that the increase in numbers of students had little effect on social mobility. It comes amid reports that the admissions system has been skewed in favour of foreign students who generate more money for universities.

“This is for two important reasons. One: a disproportionate number of university students come from the middle and upper classes. Two: higher education remains the primary entry route to high-quality jobs.”