A Private Member's Bill, which has all-party backbench support, would give carers the right to be assessed by their local authority for services to meet their own needs such as respite care and help at home.
Councils would be empowered, but not obliged by law, to provide services for carers in their own right. The definition of the term "private carer" would be amended to ensure that young carers under 18 and people caring for children with special needs arealso included within the legislation.
The Bill is being put forward by Malcolm Wicks, Labour MP for Croydon North West, who is a former director of the Family Policy Studies Centre. Mr Wicks reluctantly decided that providing the services should not be mandatory in order to have a realistic prospect of gaining government approval.
There has been an increasing reliance on unpaid carers since the NHS and Community Care Act came into force in April 1993, transferring to local authorities the responsibility for assessing and paying for services for the elderly and other vulnerable groups.
Mr Wicks said: "In theory the Government should support giving carers extra help as it has put care at home at the centre of its community care policy. But carers are being squeezed out in the prioritising of resources.
"This caring army has been taken for granted long enough. Unless we recognise their value and help them cope the carer may just collapse under the strain."
Mr Wicks has estimated the notional cost of the value of all informal care provided free is at least £30bn a year - equal to the entire NHS budget. An estimate of the cost of care by the 1.5 million people who put in at least 20 hours of care a week is almost £20bn a year.
The Bill is supported by the Carers National Association, which estimates there are 6.8 million carers in Britain - one in seven people. Of these 2.9 million are men and 3.9m are women. It also estimates there is a growing number of children - well over 10,000 - acting as primary carers.
The peak age for becoming a carer is 45 to 64, representing 24 per cent of people in this age group. Most carers look after elderly people - 79 per cent of those cared for are over 65 and 20 per cent are 85 or over - an increase of five per cent since 1985.
The kind of help that carers give ranges from shopping once a week to continuous care.
Another survey by the Carers National Association showed that 47 per cent of members had experienced financial difficulties since becoming a carer; 65 per cent said their own health had suffered; 20 per cent had never had a break and 33 per cent got no help or support.
Some older carers are desperate, the report reveals.
"I'm depressed and hopeless and the lack of sleep is terrible," one said. "After two heart attacks and a nervous breakdown I wanted to kill my wife," another said.
Welcoming the Bill, Jill Pitkeathley, the association's director, said: "We know that many carers want to look after their relatives, but they are coming under growing pressure from charges being made for services such as respite care, reduction in long-term nursing beds and an assumption that families will continue to cope."Reuse content