23/04/2015 05:26 BST | Updated 22/06/2015 06:59 BST

Selfless Carers Are the Unsung Heroes of Our Health and Care System

Most of us say we would do anything for our loved ones. And we mean it - we all know instinctively how precious our relationships are and how much they contribute to a life well lived. But when family and friends start to need more and more help to maintain their quality of life, the reality of doing anything, and providing support day in, day out, can take a very heavy toll.

Today, one in eight adults across the UK are living this reality. That's 6.5million people - and an estimated 700,000 young carers - giving up their time and energy, and putting their own needs on hold to support the people they care about.

That so many people give so much of themselves is deeply humbling, but for far too long we have taken their sacrifice for granted. Research by Carers UK shows that over 60% of carers have faced depression as they find themselves unable to maintain a life of their own. 49% of carers find that they struggle financially, with money worries adding to their stresses. And just as concerning, 45% have found themselves forced to give up their jobs after being unable to juggle the competing demands of work and caring.

This is shocking. Carers are the unsung heroes of our health and care system. And their selfless care saves the state an estimated £119billion - more than the entire annual budget for the NHS. So looking after carers has to be a priority - not just because it helps build a fairer society, but because it make financial sense too.

In this government we've made a start. As Care Minister I made sure that there was funding for carers breaks to give people respite, and Norman Lamb and I worked together to enshrine new rights for carers in the Care Act, as well as the Children and Families Act.

Today, we're setting out how we will go much further in the next parliament - with a £150million package for carers. We want to see full time carers receive a carers bonus of £150 every year -rising to £250 by 2020 - so they have the cash to put their own needs first for once. And we'll pay for it through a levy on tobacco companies so those who rack up costs to the NHS finally pay towards supporting those who contribute so much to it.

We also want to make sure that the NHS does more to recognises its debt to carers. There are places where this happens and we know it can make all the difference, so we want to make sure that it becomes the rule, rather than the exception. We will place a legal duty on the NHS to identify carers, and will introduce an innovative new 'Carer's Passport' that provides people who look after their loved ones with extra rights and support. This could range from more flexible visiting hours and free hospital parking, through to free cinema tickets, free restaurant meals, and free gym sessions because we know that carers need a range of support to make their lives easier. And for young carers at university who too often miss out, we will develop an NHS student guarantee to make sure they get the care and support they need to keep studying and caring.

We also want to make sure that there is much more flexibility to support carers who want to work. We will raise the Carer's Allowance cap on earnings from £110 per week to £150, giving £50million back to carers by the end of the next parliament. And we will work with employers to look at whether we can introduce an entitlement to five days' paid "care leave" for carers who need to take time off to support those they care for. As farsighted employers like BT have been quick to recognise, supporting employees - including carers - makes good business sense, reduces sick leave, increases productivity, and saves the significant costs of recruitment which are racked up when employees are forced to leave their jobs. We want this vision to be the norm rather than the exception so that we can ease the burden of caring on both carers and employers.

Finally, we will appoint a cross-government carer's champion who will put the voice of carers at the heart of government for the first time. We owe carers an enormous debt - Lib Dems are committed to doing everything we can in the next government to carry on paying it back.