he Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) has raised its concerns with a Home Office minister following 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 unfair."

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 and 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: "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."