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Lord Sugar has defended allowing contestants as young as 16 to take part in a version of The Apprentice, and insisted the teenagers are fully supported.

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The business guru, who has unveiled 12 new wannabes – three of whom are Londoners – taking part in BBC1’s Young Apprentice, said the hopefuls and their parents are fully informed of what TV exposure will mean to them.

His comments came after criticism of ITV’s The X Factor for including contestants as young as 16.

Lord Sugar said he was aware of the discussion about the talent show’s age limit, and said: “That’s why we look after them so well, we’re very, very conscious of that.”

He said the BBC was careful not to exploit young people and had ditched an earlier idea of Lord Sugar’s to feature contestants from 14 to 16.

“We realised it was impossible to comply with the correct mentoring so that’s why we upped the ante to 16 to 17-year-olds - but these kids are very well looked after.

“I won’t have anything to do with it, neither would Nick [Hewer] or Karren [Brady], with exploiting youngsters, and on occasion some of them get a bit emotional and we calm down, we stop, we give them time and we move on.”

Viewers will note that Lord Sugar, Hewer and Brady are noticeably softer with the younger contestants than they are with contestants on the original series, and those who are fired travel home in Lord Sugar’s Rolls Royce rather than the standard black cab.

Lord Sugar added that producers give a “complete lecture” on what to expect once the series airs, and that contestants are able to drop out of the process if they do not feel they are strong enough to take part.

“We really do tell them before, and the parents, long before we start filming. They need to understand that they have the right to pull out after giving them a complete lecture on what is likely to happen once their face hits the screen, only then, when parents and children themselves fully understand the ramifications, do we go into the final stages of selection,” he said.

During last year’s series, 16-year-old finalist Zoe Plummer caused a stir and was branded by some as bossy, but Lord Sugar said she is having the last laugh.

“Zoe has got some business running now so she’s alright,” he said.

Brady added that Young Apprentice was not comparable with The X Factor, saying: “Our series doesn’t show that quick fix. It’s not a talent show, it does show that you do have to actually think about things, you need to know a little bit about maths and you do have to work hard and show determination.”

This year’s contestants include a 16-year-old boy who has already set up three businesses and a 16-year-old girl who has her own production company and makes films for charities.

In the first episode the boys and the girls are separated and told to make their own ice cream to sell on a hot summer day.

Other tasks include launching a new brand of deodorant, selling a product for the parent and baby market, and creating an online video game.

The series winner will have access to £25,000 to kick-start their own ventures.

Young Apprentice starts on BBC1 on Monday, October 24 at 9pm.

The contestants are:

• Lizzie Magee, 16, from Liverpool, has her own business designing personalised guitar straps and also breeds jack russell terriers.

• Ben Fowler, 16, from Birmingham, has his own allotment and gardening business.

• Gbemi Okunlola, 16, from London, has her own clothing line.

• Harry Hitchens, 17, from Brighton, runs his own photography business and has been working since he was nine.

• Hannah Richards, 16, from Berkshire, has made money re-selling vintage clothes and creating school leavers’ hoodies.

• Harry Maxwell, 16, from Oxfordshire, has started three successful businesses, encompassing travel, marketing, property and cosmetics.

• Haya Al Dlame, 17, from London, sells items on eBay.

• James McCullagh, 17, from County Derry, Northern Ireland, got the joint highest score in GCSE economics in Northern Ireland.

• Hayley Forrester, 16, from Shrewsbury, rears chickens and sells eggs.

• Lewis Roman, 16, from Merseyside, started his work career as a stylist in a hair salon.

• Zara Brownless, 16, from Hertfordshire, has her own production company and makes films for charities.

• Mahamed Awale, 16, from Greater London, is the Youth Parliament representative for his borough and has made money buying and selling TV satellites.

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