The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) has raised its concerns with a Home Office minister following newspaper reports that a UK police force has declared that driving away from a petrol station without paying for fuel is no longer considered a crime.

Devon and Cornwall Police said it would not investigate such incidents unless there was obvious proof of criminal intent – such as false number plates, and the force has blamed government cuts for the decision.

PRA chairman Brian Madderson commented: “We are alarmed by the growing rate of petrol theft over the past five years. Incidents of bilking have risen due to pump prices going up steeply, and now that police are broadcasting this as a low priority, this will no doubt encourage thieves further.

“Forecourts are being urged to be proactive and toughen up their security, however smaller independent garages who don’t have the financial resources will still largely be at risk. Petrol retailers are paying high business rates, part of which contributes towards spending in the police force, and so for the police to put sole responsibility of fuel theft on the garage is both unfair and irresponsible.

“The PRA has written to Mike Penning, Minister of State for Policing and Justice, informing him of our concerns surrounding this issue and we have requested an immediate meeting to discuss the seriousness of this growing problem among police authorities.”

PRA member Clive Sheppard of Top 50 Indie Chartman Group, which has sites across Devon and Cornwall, said: “This new initiative seems very ill considered, undermines the credibility of the police, and ultimately puts the public at risk as we are seemingly being encouraged to tackle crime ourselves.”

However, Paul Netherton, assistant chief constable operations at Devon & Cornwall Police, tweeted: “Not exactly as being reported ....We are recording crimes but we are challenging garages to prevent the crime (using pre payment) and seek a civil debt recovery where it isn’t a deliberate crime.”

In a statement the police force said: “Across Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in 2014 the Force received around 1,600 reports where a customer had left without paying for fuel from a garage forecourt. These are not offences of fraud or theft. In many cases they are a mistake on the part of the individual who, when advised of their mistake, returns to make payment for their fuel. In fraud or theft cases, there are indications of intent such as the use of false number plates.

“The Force will no longer be deploying officers to attend these reports and make contact with the member of the public on behalf of the garage, unless there is evidence of linked offending or vulnerability.

“Garages are able to seek the vehicle owner’s details and pursue a civil recovery of this debt themselves and will be provided with the detail of how to do so on reporting. They will also be provided with advice on preventing these matters occurring. There are many garages across Devon and Cornwall who have put in place measures which ensure it is not possible to leave their forecourts without paying for fuel.

“The Force is keen to support all traders and, to accompany this, a crime prevention page about forecourt crime features on the Force website. This offers practical advice on how owners can reduce the risk and highlights that fuel bilking is preventable.”

ACC Netherton said: “We need to manage the demand and deploy our limited resources effectively. We are looking at doing things differently and working with our communities to prevent crime. This is part of protecting our resources to deal with those incidents which pose the greatest threat to our community.

“Businesses need to use the civil recovery options already available to recover their losses. We will always target and thoroughly investigate repeat offenders and incidents where vulnerability is identified. We will also continue to offer prevention advice to reduce the risk of these incidents occurring.”