The concept of pre-payment for fuel as a way to prevent drive-offs has been around for a long time, and in some countries it is mandatory, but it has always been resisted by the majority of the trade in the UK. Indeed, as forecourt shops have become ever more important to many businesses, and therefore the need to drive footfall into them, the prospect of many customers simply paying at the pump and then driving off without visiting the shop, has only strengthened opposition.
But with their budgets being cut, police chiefs have been looking for ways to cut costs, and the high level of drive-offs, and therefore the amount of police resources devoted to them, has come under scrutiny.
Over the summer there were several reports of police forces trying to persuade forecourt owners to install pre-payment pumps (see box below), and suggestions that if petrol stations did not comply then forces should not respond to drive-offs.
Some industry observers suspected that there was an element of co-ordination between police chiefs and this suspicion was only heightened when the crime prevention minister at the Home Office, Norman Baker, waded into the debate.
In an interview with the Financial Times he suggested that petrol stations are encouraging theft by failing to take measures to stop customers leaving without paying, and he questioned whether police should respond to reports of motorists driving off without paying for fuel, if forecourt retailers are not willing to stop the practice by demanding pre-payment for fuel at the pump.
Baker said that petrol companies have taken a calculated risk by not requiring all motorists to pay up front for fuel, because they believe that drivers are more likely to buy other items if they have to go into the shop after filling up.
"They make the calculation that by pulling you into the premises they will engender sales that wouldn’t otherwise happen and accept the price for that is that petrol will sometimes be taken without being paid for," he said.
"The question in [my] mind is if they’re doing nothing at all to prevent theft, why should the police bother responding to any calls they get? The police aren’t there to provide numbers for insurance companies, that’s not their function."
His comments brought an angry response, with PRA chairman Brian Madderson commenting: "Trying to force retailers to adopt pre-payment is an arrogant, misguided viewpoint that would cause a grievous loss of trade. We only live as forecourt retailers these days by dint of our shop sales. The margin on fuel has almost disappeared and the reason is the supermarkets selling at or below cost."
Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) chief executive James Lowman was equally scathing saying: "Norman Baker’s comments are deeply unhelpful and show a lack of knowledge and empathy with the problems faced by forecourt retailers who pay out of their own pocket for losses from drive-offs. For a Home Office minister to encourage police forces not to respond to reports of any crime is unacceptable."
Even AA president Edmund King, often a critic of forecourt operators, said: "Drivers want a choice as to whether they pay at the pump or in the garage shop. It seems grossly unfair to suggest that all drivers should pay at the pump due to the criminal activity of a minority of crooks in cars. Rather than passing the buck we need better technology to defer fraud and more cops in cars to catch these fraudsters."
And shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: "It is frankly unbelievable that a Home Office minister should suggest the police should just ignore people who steal petrol. The idea that petrol stations are encouraging theft is ridiculous. Rather than blaming the victim of crimes, government ministers should be ensuring those responsible are caught and prosecuted. This sends out completely the wrong message."
BOSS, the British Oil Security Syndicate, the body that campaigns to reduce crime on forecourts, wrote to the minister to bring to his attention the fact that BOSS has recovered £1.5m as a direct result of forecourt retailers taking positive action to reduce crime and losses from people claiming to have No Means of Payment (NMoP).
Kevin Eastwood, executive director at BOSS, said: "It is disappointing to hear recent comments from Norman Baker. We’ve worked closely with the Home Office for many years to find new and improved ways of tackling crime on forecourts.
"The BOSS Payment Watch scheme is an excellent example that has proved popular and effective for forecourt retailers and since the scheme was started in 2011 it has now recovered £1.5m for participating retailers, more than £400,000 in this year alone."
Perhaps, coincidentally, a roundtable meeting with the Home Office to discuss drive-offs, involving representatives from the PRA, ACS, BOSS police, supermarkets and individual retailers, was already being organised prior to the minister’s comments. It took place on August 20 under ’Chatham House rules’, meaning the proceedings are confidential, and those who attended are waiting to see the action points from the meeting.
Norman Baker was not present at the meeting, but what attendees are hoping for is that the Home Office now has a much better understanding of the issues, what the industry is doing to address them, and that it will seek to roll out best practice to police forces where partnerships with forecourts are not as strong as they could be.
Police pushing pre-payment
Police forces and officers recently advocating pre-payment have ranged from the West Midlands, where the police and crime commissioner convened a meeting with national retailers and BOSS, through to an individual PC in Havering, in east London, who did an interview with his local paper.
Durham Police placed a large sign outside one petrol station trying to pressure it into installing pre-payment pumps. A police van was parked outside Morrison’s filling station in North Road Darlington with a large sign inside the windscreen warning: "Criminals are stealing from this garage. . . you’re paying for their fuel."
Chief constable Mike Barton announced the campaign and said the police force plans to park the vehicle outside filling stations identified as not doing enough to tackle fuel theft.
Detective superintendent Kevin Weir from Durham’s Serious Crime and Justice Team said: "Theft of fuel from filling stations is an issue we believe could be reduced by a more proactive stance from forecourt retailers. One solution for example, is introducing pre-payment for fuel." Mark Todd, Morrisons director of retail petrol, said: "Like all the multiple site petrol retailers in the UK, we operate one standard method of payment. Pre-payment is not only unpopular, but also inefficient for the customer: if they can’t fit the pre-pay value into their vehicle, they would have to go back into the kiosk and get their change not to mention the associated fuel loyalty points adjustment. We keep an eye on the issue, but have no plans to introduce the system at present."
DS Weir said: "I reserve the right to escalate the action if the sign doesn’t work. This could involve contacting insurers to ensure they are aware of the risks posed by offenders driving off at speed from forecourts, and ensuring the top board at Morrisons are aware of this issue."