There has been a storm of criticism for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) after it told petrol station owners they would be responsible for tracing drivers who do not pay.

Letters were sent to petrol stations in two districts – Lisburn and Castlereagh, and Ards and North Down – in July notifying them of the change, which came into effect at the start of August.

Police said research showed up to 85% of drive-offs are “genuine mistakes” that do not require their input.

PRA chairman Brian Madderson said the initiative contrasted with the way forecourt crime was being treated on the mainland, and gave a green light to criminal activity.

“Drive-offs are at record levels,” he said, “so I will be asking the PSNI to share the research data on which they have based their assessment that 85% of drive-offs are genuine mistakes. That is not what we are finding in Great Britain.

“I will be writing to the PSNI chief constable and to Justice Minister Claire Sugden to express our concern at this initiative and to seek a meeting with them to ensure they are aware of the steps being taken on the mainland to address this growing problem.”

He added that he hoped to meet with both of them when he was in Northern Ireland next month.

The PRA was instrumental in persuading the Home Office to set up the Forecourt Crime Senior Steering Group last year.

Madderson said it had helped retailers to report crime in a consistent way that was most useful to the police, and to ensure the police were engaging with forecourt crime in a consistent manner.

David Cardwell, who runs a petrol station in Portavogie, County Down, told the BBC that the PSNI were “washing their hands” of the issue.

The new process means retailers will have to send a letter to the Driver Vehicle and Licensing Agency (DVLA) to get the information on the car, for which there is a £2.50 fee, and tell them that there’s been a criminal act, he said.

Retailers will then have to write to the driver to ask them if they were in the petrol station on the date and to ask them to pay for the fuel.

If the person responsible does not pay up, retailers will have to take civil action through the courts, he added.

“If someone drives off with £10 of fuel then we have to add £2.50 onto it. It’s not worth chasing someone up for that, we’ll probably just have to write it off.”

Jenny Palmer, a member of the Legislative Assembly, called for the pilot to be scrapped.

“This is quite frankly a disgraceful scheme and it can only lead to an increase in theft as petty criminals will take advantage of the huge amount of red tape which petrol retailers will have to trawl through to get their money back," she said.

The PSNI said that in the vast majority of such cases, their role was to help petrol stations recover civil debts, which was placing a “substantial but preventable burden” on police resources.

“The purpose of this pilot is to remove much of that burden and free up local police time to deal with criminality, identify and apprehend offenders and keep people safe,” said a police statement.

It said the scheme would be subject to an “ongoing review” to assess the impact on policing in the districts where it is being piloted.