Putting the Record Straight on Youth Employment

21/09/2012 10:05 BST | Updated 20/11/2012 10:12 GMT

It was alleged on Wednesday morning by the London Metro newspaper that I told an audience of young people in a debate at Channel 4's offices that they should busk to raise money to use public transport, leave school at 16 and work for less than the minimum wage. No direct quotations can be found attributing these remarks to me, and even though the event was filmed by Channel 4, there doesn't seem to be any footage either. That is because I said none of these things.

Channel 4 had organised the debate to discuss the problems young people have been experiencing finding work, and also whether this is the most difficult job market ever for them. The truth is of course that youth unemployment has been a problem for more than a decade. Even in the boom years before 2007, and under Labour, youth unemployment continued to rise steadily from around the year 2000, until numbers recently started to fall.

A number of members of the audience for this debate wanted to work in the media; an industry that has always been attractive for young people, and very competitive to get into. To illustrate this point I mentioned the former creative director of my old advertising agency, M&C Saatchi, who a good few years ago now had been so determined to get his break into the industry that he busked to raise money for train fares to get to interviews and meetings with potential employers.

Now some people might say that this story of a young man struggling to get his big break and then rising to be one of the most awarded and respected ad men in the country was on the whole positive, rather than something that reflected badly on society. I made it quite clear in my remarks that I did not see this as an example for others to follow, but it just showed that it has always been difficult getting into competitive industries, and that some people go to extraordinary lengths to do so.

But some people claimed that this meant I thought young people should busk to work, which is completely wrong, and something I have never, and would never say. In their eyes, it would seem that if you praise someone for being motivated, you are somehow implicitly saying that other people lack motivation, which is again completely wrong.

Times have changed, and instead of busking, young people can rightly get paid internships and also short term work placements at advertising agencies in London where their travel costs and expenses are met by their employer. I also wanted to do something to help young people in my constituency who want to work in the industry and with M&C Saatchi this summer we set up a pop-up agency in Folkestone where we recruited 12 young local people who were able to get a flavour of the experience of working in a London agency, but in their home town. I discussed this several times during the Channel 4 debate, but this somehow didn't make it into the newspaper report. Similarly, I also praised my own local council, Shepway, which has a scheme to support apprentices, including contributing towards their travel costs to work. Again, this was something that wasn't included in the newspaper report of the Channel 4 debate.

The allegation that I think young people should leave school at 16 and work for less than the minimum wage is completely untrue. What I discussed was a conversation with a businessman who ran a training salon in the hair and beauty sector. He said that a young person who wanted to work in that industry may be better off becoming an apprentice at 16 and training on the job, rather than doing a course at college in the same subject. His view was that someone who had been an apprentice was more likely at 19 to be earning at or above the national minimum wage, than someone who wanted to start work in the same business after leaving college at 18.

This was a highly specific example related to a single sector and not a general view on the value of higher or further education. It is clear that most students benefit from staying in education, but what I said to the young people in the audience was that this example showed that it was very important if they have a clear idea of what they want to do, that they get good advice about what is the best way to achieve this. In this case, to get advice about whether or not you are better placed staying at college than becoming an apprentice. The reaction to these comments by some people just shows how far we have to go to make sure that apprentices get the recognition they deserve.