Angry retailers fear it will be ’open season’ for thieves if plans to cut jail terms for shoplifters go ahead.

Attacking proposals from the Sentencing Advisory Panel (SAP) that could see even the most persistent offenders getting off with a Community Order, forecourt operators said they have already seen drive-offs taken less seriously and now their shop businesses could become more vulnerable too.

Paul Deary, group operations manager for Jonathan James’ sites, said: "It’s a double-whammy from the forecourt retailer’s point of view. It feels like we’re getting it from all sides - not only can they take fuel and get away with it, but they could also come into the shop and help themselves.

"Shoplifting is a big problem for all smaller retailers - any theft eats into the profit margin. For a single-site retailer it could be the difference between being able to employ an extra member of staff."

Meanwhile, Paul Sykes of Shaw Petroleum said the proposals were "absolutely disgraceful": "I think it’s an insidious political method of trying to reduce crime figures and will give both the police and the courts the opportunity to take retail crime less seriously. Once people know nothing will happen to them it will be open season."

The SAP, an independent body which advises government, has asked for views on whether the threat of a jail term for shoplifters should be removed, unless there were ’aggravating’ factors such as violence.

Kevin Eastwood, chief executive of the British Oil Security Syndicate (BOSS) said he would be making a representation to the panel: "Theft from any retail outlet should be properly punished. The prospect of reducing penalties sends the wrong message to potential offenders."

Latest figures from the British Retail Consortium show that customer theft cost the retail sector £589m in 2004, a 44% increase on 2003.