Belfast Telegraph

PSNI U-turn over petrol station forecourt theft scheme after public outcry

Plan could have lead to even more theft: MLA Jenny Palmer

By David Young and Jonny Bell

A PSNI scheme aimed at tackling motorists who drive off forecourts without paying for petrol has been postponed after an outcry from business owners.

The pilot scheme aimed to shift the responsibility for tracing 'drive-offs' from the police to petrol retailers. It was thought they would have had to send a letter to the Driver Vehicle and Licensing Agency (DVLA) to get the information on the car - which incurs a £2.50 fee - and inform them that there has been a criminal act.

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

And if they didn't pay, the retailer will then have to take action in the civil courts to recover their losses, thus incurring court fees and enforcement fees - which could easily exceed the value of the petrol stolen.

Following the pilot scheme's announcement for the two police districts of Lisburn & Castlereagh and Ards & North Down there was an outcry.

Forecourt owners blasted the scheme with some branding the PSNI "lazy" saying it should enforce the law.

The police, however, said that as 85% of drive offs were accidental and genuine mistakes and the money paid, it would save money.

But on Friday they shelved the scheme.

Superintendent Brian Kee said, “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.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Jenny Palmer said the pilot scheme had already been in effect in the two districts since the start of August and called for it to be scrapped before the police decision.

She said: "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.

"This so-called pilot scheme reeks of the PSNI washing their hands of the situation facing petrol retailers," she said.

"It will encourage petrol thieves, who will no longer be afraid of the police coming after them."

PSNI Superintendent Brian Kee, responding to the criticism before the scheme was shelved said: "Research has indicated that locally, 85% of all reported 'drive-offs', instances where people leave the forecourt without paying for fuel, are genuine mistakes and are not crimes that require police investigation.

"The police role in these reports then is purely to assist the business recover what is actually a civil debt. The routine attendance of police at all drive-offs, and particularly at those where a crime is not suspected, is placing a substantial but preventable burden on local police resourcing and budget.

"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. The pilot will be subject to ongoing review to assess the impact on local policing in the district."

But Brian Madderson of the UK's Petrol Retailers' Association, said the initiative 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."

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland described the scheme as a sign of policing to come. Chairman Mark Lindsay said it is further evidence of an under-strength and under-resourced service unable to meet the demands placed upon it.

Mr Lindsay said: "The danger with this scheme is that it could be used by others to get away with stealing small amounts of petrol from forecourts without the prospect of being prosecuted.

"The onus is now on the retailer to chase up the debt even though a criminal act has been committed. Such an approach is dangerous and will lead to increased but unrecorded criminal acts.

"It's petrol retailers in the pilot area today. Will it be retailers in the high street tomorrow, as policing struggles to deliver what each and every officer wants to deliver, namely a reliable, robust and professional service to the public?"

Belfast Telegraph

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