Police should be honest that they are struggling to deliver their commitment to reduce crime, instead of ‘victim blaming’ petrol retailers, according to PRA chairman Brian Madderson.

He was responding to comments made by Simon Cole of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) that petrol retailers are inviting criminality by encouraging drivers into forecourt shops, and should instead force them to pay at the pump to cut the number of customers driving off without paying.

The PRA and its members regard switching to pay-at-the-pump as prohibitively expensive, estimating the cost to retrofit petrol pumps to take card payments at an average filling station at £20,000, with some industry experts putting the cost higher still.

“The UK has seen a 40% reduction in filling stations over the past 15 years,” stressed Madderson. “Those remaining have developed their retail offer to better serve their customers, with many lost amenities from banks and post offices migrating into the store of petrol stations, particularly in rural areas.

“Rather than lecturing the victims of crime, the government should be empowering responsible businesses to enforce the law where the police are too overstretched to intervene. One solution would be to give petrol retailers electronic access to the DVLA’s Vehicle Keeper database, so they can pursue drive-offs through the civil courts and ease pressure on the police.”

Meanwhile RAC fuel spokesman Simon Williams said that while a blanket approach of compelling every forecourt to introduce pre-payment, pay-at-pump technology could solve the problem of bilking, it could also have some unintended consequences.

“Firstly, there would be an immediate financial impact on forcing fuel retailers to upgrade their pumps – this might be a cost easily swallowed by larger fuel retailers, but for the thousands of independent forecourts who already make a small margin on selling fuel, it could be a different matter altogether, possibly threatening the viability of some smaller operations. Arguably, some retailers may believe they have no choice but to charge more for fuel to cover their costs.

“Some independent forecourts also rely on drivers spending money in their on-site stores in order to make ends meet - something that could disappear if every driver paid at the pump. It could also mean people no longer having the option of paying for fuel using cash.

“It would certainly make sense however for those retailers who suffer regular fuel thefts to consider investing in pre-payment systems, or demand drivers pay in person before they top up.”