As police services across the UK have cut the number of frontline officers in response to funding pressures, chief constables and politicians have been looking for ways to ease the burden on the remaining crime fighters. One way that has been repeatedly suggested is downgrading the importance attached to forecourt drive-off crimes. It is a policy that has been proposed by a number of police chiefs over the years, but the first time it made major national headlines was in 2014.
The-then Home Office minister Norman Baker told the Financial Times that forecourt operators should install pre-payment pumps, and that if they didn’t then the police should not be expected to respond to thefts.
He asserted that petrol companies were taking a calculated risk by not requiring motorists to pay up-front for fuel because they believe that drivers are more likely to buy other items if they have to go into shops after filling up. He told the FT: "They make the calculation that by pulling you into the premises they will engender sales that wouldn’t otherwise happen and accept the price for that is that petrol will sometimes be taken without being paid for. The question in (my) mind is if they are doing nothing at all to prevent theft, why should the police bother responding to any calls they get? The police aren’t there to provide numbers for insurance companies. That’s not their function."
After a storm of protests led by the PRA, and including other politicians, nothing came of the proposal and Baker resigned from his ministerial post later that year over an unrelated matter.
Two years later another storm of criticism forced the Police Service of Northern Ireland to back down after informing retailers it would pilot a scheme making petrol station owners responsible for tracing drivers who did not pay.
And just last week it was clear the police aren’t giving up on this line, and this time it was a senior police officer using precisely the same language as Norman Baker four years earlier. Simon Cole, the National Police Chief’s Council lead on local policing and Leicestershire Chief Constable, told The Telegraph: "The petroleum industry could design out bilking in 30 seconds by making people pay up-front which is what they do in other countries. They don’t because the walk-up in their shops is part of their business offer."
He said that in his force the loss of 500 officers since 2010 equated to one million fewer deployable hours a year, while the national 22,000 reduction in officers amounted to 34 million fewer hours. "The challenge is what efficiencies can we identify, what processes can we make leaner, what processes can we stop doing that enable you to deliver with one million fewer operational hours."
Cole’s suggestion drew an angry response from PRA chairman Brian Madderson, who said: "Instead of ’victim blaming’ petrol retailers, the police should be honest that they are struggling to deliver their commitment to reduce crime." He explained that 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 to be £20,000, with some industry experts putting the cost higher still.
Madderson added: "The UK has seen a 40% reduction in filling stations over the past 15 years. Those remaining have developed their retail offer to better serve their customers, with many lost amenities from banks and post offices migrating into the stores 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."
The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) was similarly dismissive of the chief constable’s comments and said they suggested he did not appreciate the significant cost and complexity that pre-payment entails for the UK’s 8,400-plus petrol forecourts.
ACS chief executive, James Lowman, said: "Chief constable Cole’s comments are too simplistic. The universal introduction of mandatory pay-at-pump facilities would be extremely expensive and any additional costs would inevitably have to be passed on to motorists and shop customers. We appreciate the pressure on police resources and the desire to ’design out’ crime wherever possible, but preventing drive- offs is not a quick fix."
Even the RAC, which is often critical of the forecourt sector, pointed out the flaws in the chief constable’s suggestion. RAC fuel spokesman Simon Williams said: "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."
It is clear that a misconception has become deeply embedded in the police ranks that when a filling station has oil company branding, the deep coffers of these companies would be paying for pay-at-pump facilities. Somehow the message has to get through that the vast majority of forecourts are owned by private businesses whose business rates contribute to the police precept and for many their shops are a crucial element in their survival. They are providing a service to the same community the police serve, and they should be able to rely on support and protection from the police when it is needed.
The cost for retailers
The BOSS Forecourt Crime Index reveals that fuel theft incidents per site recorded by BOSS fell by 2% during the second quarter (Q2).However, rising fuel prices pushed up the average initial loss per site, before any BOSS Payment Watch recovery, to £345 (Q1 £327), an increase of 5.5%. Net litres lost per site before BOSS Payment Watch recovery was 135.5 during Q2 (Q1 135.1)
The BOSS Forecourt Crime Index for Q2 was 139, compared with 142 in the previous quarter.
The BOSS Index is based on the number of incidents reported to BOSS in each quarter, and the index base of 100 was established in Q2 2015. During Q2 2018 some incidents additional to those included in the report for Q1 have been recorded by BOSS. Therefore, the number of incidents per site in Q1 has been amended from the previously reported 7.0 to 7.6.
In Q2 incidents per sites fell to 7.5, but BOSS said this could change due to any late reporting of incidents in the quarter.