19/03/2014 09:49 GMT | Updated 19/05/2014 06:59 BST

The Welfare Cap Alone Won't Bring Down Spending

The chancellor has just announced a limit on how much the government is allowed to spend on welfare. By doing this he is drawing a line and daring the opposition to step over it. But while the politicians raise the stakes ahead of next year's general election we need to make sure they don't forget families struggling in or on the edge of poverty.

Many families need help. Families living with poverty are particularly vulnerable. The cap on welfare won't instantly remove their reliance on benefits. It won't suddenly turn around their lives. It is dedicated help and support, of the sort that we deliver day in day out, that can really make that lasting change.

We know there is hope. But for too many families life is incredibly hard. Action for Children works with more than 300,000 children, young people, parents and carers a year through 650 services, and we know that families are feeling the pressure. When we surveyed our service managers, two thirds of them said the needs of the children they work with had increased in the last year and 62 per cent of our children's centres are referring families to food banks.

Whatever the merits of an overall cap on welfare spending and however it is going to work, it's clear that on its own it's not enough. This debate on welfare and poverty is taking the focus from where it is most needed - helping vulnerable children and their families.

Working with families to help them before they reach crisis point can avoid greater distress and the need for much more costly help down the line. We worked with the think tank New Economics Foundation and calculated that almost £500 billion of public spending could be saved in the next twenty years if family breakdown, mental health problems and offending were dealt with earlier. The cost of business as usual for these services was £4 trillion during the same period. But worryingly, while we have proven the economic case for early intervention, local authority spending on prevention fell 9.2 per cent between 2010 and 2012.

As well as helping families earlier, making sure that children get the best start in life is another vital part of breaking the cycle of poverty. There has been good news in this area with the government announcing yesterday that it will introduce an "early years pupil premium" providing extra money for childcare providers working with disadvantaged three and four-year-olds to get them practically and emotionally ready to start school. This is something we pushed for, along with other charities.

Supporting families to transform their own lives is the only long term solution to high levels of spending on welfare. This requires long term commitment across all political parties. So if the chancellor and his opposite number want to make a lasting difference, they need to focus on investing in the future.