The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, is to introduce legislation to strenghen the powers of social welfare inspectors to investigate welfare fraud.

Her spokesperson said that that one of the new measures will empower designated officers to make inquiries of landlords.

The Department of Social Protection said almost 17,000 allegations of fraud were recorded last year, an increase of 5,000 on 2010.

Over 30,000 fraud investigations or inquiries were completed and 750 employer inspections were undertaken.

270 cases were considered for prosecution for fraud offences under the Social Welfare Act, while 174 cases were referred to gardaí for criminal prosecution.

The Government is also to bring forward legislation to enable Social Welfare officials to investigate suspected fraud and present these findings directly to the Director for Public Prosecutions.

Minister Burton said today that the State will save €645m on its welfare budget through the fraud prevention and control measures made last year - well in excess of the €540m target.

However, Social Justice Ireland claimed the €645m in savings were not solely due to the latest fraud measures.

"The most recent study conducted on this issue showed that more than three quarters of the savings came from correcting errors made by staff in calculating people's entitlements," said Social Justice Ireland's Director Dr Seán Healy.

SJI points to a study published last year, which found that only 21.1% of overpayments were due to fraud.

"There is no justification for misleading statements that present many of Ireland's poorest and most vulnerable people as fraudsters when the facts clearly don't support such a claim."