The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has postponed a scheme to make petrol station owners responsible for tracing drivers who do not pay, after a storm of criticism.
Letters were sent to petrol stations in two districts – Lisburn and Castlereagh, and Ards and North Down – in July notifying them of the change, and saying it would come 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.
However, superintendant Brian Kee announced: “Following feedback and additional consultation with stakeholders, police in B and C district have postponed the introduction of a pilot scheme to deal with drive-offs from local petrol stations.
"Police will now discuss and review the introduction of this pilot project."
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.
Madderson said he hoped to meet both the PSNI chief constable and justice minister Claire Sugden 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 new process meant retailers would 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 had been a criminal act.
Retailers would 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 did not pay, retailers would have to take civil action through the courts.
He said: “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.
Prior to the postponement 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.”
It said the scheme would be subject to an “ongoing review” to assess the impact on policing in the districts where it was being piloted.