Whitehall is to ban informal internships as part of a drive to improve social mobility, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, announced on Tuesday.

His stance was undermined after he was reminded of his own party’s patchy record on interns. The Liberal Democrat leader said he wanted to stop people advancing purely on the basis of “who they know” and put an end to unpaid internships.

The civil service will instead run a formal scheme aimed at under-represented groups. The government is also urging more businesses to sign a pact, already backed by some big corporate names, under which internships would be advertised with expenses paid.

The deputy prime minister’s demand that internships should no longer be the preserve of “the sharp elbowed and well connected” was weakened when it emerged that his party headquarters was advertising for an unpaid internship, as were seven of his MPs.

Mr Clegg told the Commons that “from today” his party would always ensure appropriate remuneration for interns. That would mean expenses for food and travel, his aides said, rather than a salary.

Jonny Medland, who was an intern for Mr Clegg four years ago, told the Financial Times that the MP had paid him expenses over “a couple of months” in 2007 but not a salary. “The problem is that you will always have people willing to do it unpaid because it is such a useful experience,” said Mr Medland, who is now a Labour member. “But it is hard for anyone outside London to do it.”

Mr Clegg, who faced charges from Harriet Harman, the Labour deputy leader, that he had betrayed a generation of young people by raising tuition fees, gained work experience through contacts of his father, a wealthy banker. He later secured a job in Brussels with Leon Brittan, then EU commissioner – an opportunity that came his way through Lord Carrington, former Conservative foreign secretary and next-door neighbour.

Mr Clegg said: “I have been lucky. But I now want to help others from a much wider range of backgrounds to get the sort of opportunities I enjoyed.”

A strategy published on Tuesday provides a detailed analysis of social mobility, conceding that the picture is “complex and sometimes contradictory” but that the broad picture is “fairly clear” – the UK has “relatively low levels of social mobility” both internationally and compared to the experience of the postwar baby boom generation.

The existing, mainly small, policies to tackle the problem are highlighted. They include the pupil premium, more health visitors, refocusing the reduced Sure Start children’s centres programme on the more disadvantaged, expanding apprenticeships and building a new careers service.

A child poverty strategy was published alongside it which drew heavy fire from pressure groups. The Campaign to End Child Poverty described it as “empty of action”.

The lone parents charity Gingerbread said there was a “heavy irony” that it was being launched – with a strong emphasis on work being the route out of poverty – the day before tax credits for single parents in work were being cut by an average of £500 a year.

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