A government minister who suggested petrol stations are encouraging theft by failing to take measures to stop customers leaving without paying has been widely criticised.

Home Office minister Norman Baker 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 at the pump.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Baker suggested 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.”

PRA chairman Brian Madderson said: “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.”

AA president Edmund King 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.”

The minister’s comments came just days after Durham police launched a campaign to pressurise forecourts with a high level of drive-offs to adopt pre-payment.

The force has drawn up a list of forecourts in its area that suffer from the most drive-offs and began advertising outside one with a sign saying “Criminals are stealing from this garage. . . you’re paying for their fuel.”