How many people are so absent-minded that they ’forget’ to pay for their petrol? In at least 99 out of 100 cases they are just plain stealing if they drive off your premises without at least a discussion about ’forgotten cards’. It’s a very sore point with a man called Tom who runs seven service stations in Suffolk and, it goes without saying, suffers from a lot of drive-offs. Tom has asked me not to use his full name.
"We used to get support from the police," he says. "Our cashiers have always had a standard instruction that they take down the registration number before they authorise any sales. We only have CCTV on one station because they cost thousands.
"We get paid half-pence a litre commission and the average drive-off is around £30. So you have to dispense 6,000 litres to recoup that loss and if you have a middling forecourt, that’s roughly a day’s work."
As we all know, the police changed their approach last year. "They said it’s not a crime it’s a civil matter unless there are aggravating circumstances. What’s that? A gun in my face?"
His attempts to go ’civil’ through the DVLA have been difficult, so he went to his MP, a helpful guy called Dave Ruffley (Conservative, Bury St Edmonds) but who hasn’t really got very far either. Hazel Blears, Minister of State for Crime, Security and Communities, responded in writing to Ruffley with the usual politicking blather saying ’if it’s a crime the police should follow it up’.
After Tom’s lobbying things got better for a while. He trained all the cashiers in the form of: take all registrations; ring police and say a crime has been committed and ask them to open a crime file; and fill in the incident form.
But now the police seem to need a lot of chivvying before they will act. Two weeks ago he took a drive-off form to the Bury St Edmonds police who recognised the ’customer’ because he too had ’form’. Eventually they got back saying the bloke had "made a mistake" but would come and pay (the fact that the guy had ’previous’ probably convinced him it would be good to pay his debts). "Meanwhile I have five other cases that the police won’t touch," says Tom, "so I’ve written to the local police to request a one-to-one interview and I’ve written to Ruffley and Blears again.
"We are not in a position to know if a car is stolen or if a crime has been committed. I do not accept this drive-off line that they draw. If I walk out of Tesco with a trolley full of shopping without paying, is that a crime?"
There isn’t a petrol retailer in the land who will disagree with any of the foregoing. I think, if you have to fill in forms every time this happens, there should be one more piece of paper attached that goes straight to somewhere like the National Statistics Office which allows you to go public with the information. Think of the avalanche.
The ’Saxon’ invasion I reported on in this last column is now at a standoff. For those who don’t slavishly follow this page I must inform you that Tony Barlow, who runs The Mount Service Station in Shrewsbury, has been doing battle with Saxon Paper over unwanted till rolls that a member of staff got talked into taking. The fight escalated to the point where debt collectors are threatening court action and putting him out of business for the sum of £62.87, the cost of the courier service. Tony dug his heels in and has complained to the Telephone Preference Service over unwanted telesales calls (they have passed on the complaint to the Information Commissioner) and to Trading Standards (who wrote to Saxon looking for "an amicable settlement").
Neither party is budging though. Saxon won’t fork out to pick up the paper. I spoke to debt collectors C&S Wilkinson and a spokeswoman said if the paper was the wrong sort (which it was) then Saxon could pick it up and send the right sort. I said, if they are willing to send another courier, why not just pick up the unwanted paper and call it a day?
I got nowhere. As I said in the last issue, Tony has been busy retaliating and continues to do so. He sends them regular invoices for the space the paper is taking up and he is also charging for his letters to them. "So far they owe me £80 in rental," says Tony, "so they owe me more than I owe them now!"
ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE ...
I can’t resist reporting on a comment from Steve Parks who runs a BP site in lovely Honiton in Devon, complete with a Budgens store. He originates from ’sarf’ London, so he believes he has the good life now. "Sure there’s competition - there’s Tesco Express, Tesco Supermarket, Tesco Superstore - it’s like Tesco Tinseltown around here. But whenever we get depressed we just rush out onto the forecourt and sniff the fumes!"