The energy networks are calling on MPs to bring in legislation to tackle an increase in the 'dangerous crime' of metal theft.

The summit comes after police across England have reported a rise in thefts from builders' merchant yards, as well as plumbers' vans, due to rising scrap metal prices, with copper particularly vulnerable to theft.

Minister for Crime Prevention & Anti-social Behaviour Reduction Baroness Browning said: “I have been astonished by the costs incurred and damage that metal theft is causing to businesses, services and local communities across England and Wales. We commissioned the multi-agency ACPO Metal Theft working group to deliver a plan to tackle the problem.

“The plan includes looking at how we can develop metal alternatives and more coordinated law enforcement approaches, as well as exploring possible options for a cashless system for scrap metal dealers.”

Tom Watson, MP for West Bromwich East, is hosting the summit, and said: “Global commodity prices are fuelling a huge increase in metal theft. It undermines business stability and, in some cases, has even led to lives being lost.

“It has been nearly half a century since metal theft laws were last updated. We need urgent improvements to legislation.”

David Smith, Chief Executive of ENA, said: “Metal theft has become an increasing problem for our country's infrastructure – it affects communities through loss of supply and individuals are dicing with death. The current legislation is from a time of Steptoe & Son. Legislation needs updating with a robust and enforceable registration process, greater police powers to close down illegal scrap metal dealers and a move to a cashless system."

Earlier this year, two men were convicted of "conspiring to steal" and sentenced to 20 months in prison for a spate of thefts in North Kent. Causing damage of £125,000, they broke into electrical substations owned by National Grid and UK Power Networks in an attempt to steal copper worth less than 0.1% of its replacement costs.

In 2010 there were 6,000 theft incidents against the energy networks alone, and January 2011 saw double the number of thefts than in the same period during 2010.

In one instance, a £5 brass valve which was removed from an oil-filled transformer resulted in 30,000 litres of oil leaking out.