A Government initiative aimed at providing social welfare recipients with much-needed work experience has been branded a failure after it emerged that just over one third of its 2,000 available places have been taken up.

The Work Placement Programme, launched by Tánaiste Mary Coughlan and then social affairs minister Mary Hanafin last May, aims to provide up to nine months' work experience to 2,000 unemployed individuals.

Participants in the "welfare to work" type scheme are permitted to retain their social welfare entitlements.

This prompted Hanafin to describe it at the time as "an exciting and innovative way of using social welfare payments to provide young people with the valuable experience needed to benefit fully from an economic upturn."

But minister of state at the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment, Dara Calleary TD, told the Dáil recently that by the middle of last month, just 767 people had commenced their placement on the programme. He said there were a further 1,255 placements "currently available."

The revelation has prompted criticism from the Labour Party, which said the low take-up rate was symptomatic of the government's "apathetic and uncaring approach to the unemployed".

"One would have thought that the targets at this stage would have easily been met, given the sheer numbers of unemployed people we have on the dole," its employment spokesman Willie Penrose TD said.

"Almost 12 months after it was announced, it is just unacceptable. It shows no drive and commitment from the government. It is giving lip service to the issue of unemployment by introducing a scheme which would appear to have no rigorous degree of follow-up or hands-on approach.

"It may well be that there were potential issues that had to be addressed in order to encourage participation. But surely the government should be aware of these matters before announcing the programme?"