Petrol station owners should implement pre-pay systems or install “electronic payment machines” so police officers no longer have to spend time investigating so-called “drive-offs”, an Upper Bann MLA has said.
The UUP’s Doug Beattie MC said already-stretched PSNI resources are being dedicated to tracking down individuals who drive off without paying for their fuel, and claimed there is “an easy solution to the problem” which would leave officers free to “be out meeting the real policing challenges that affect all our communities.”
Claiming that local police are already under “severe resource pressures”, Mr Beattie commented: “One of the many issues the PSNI have to deal with is petrol station drive-offs. These drive-offs are often individuals who have inadvertently forgotten to pay for their fuel, or indeed individuals who deliberately decided to drive off in an attempt to avoid paying. On many instances the petrol station will call the PSNI and report a crime – which it clearly is – and the issue of finding the individual who has driven off falls to the police. The reality being that on some occasions tracking down an individual who has - deliberately or inadvertently - not paid his £20 for the petrol could cost the PSNI as much as £200 in officer hours and other police resources.”
Suggesting that petrol station owners should take responsibility for helping to combat such crime, Mr Beattie continued: “Of course the petrol station has a part to play and they do in the main take that seriously. They have signage reminding people to pay for their fuel or to ensure they have the ability to pay for their fuel. In some cases, if they can identify the car and the owner and they have the telephone number they can and do ring to explain and in most cases it is just an absent minded individual who was distracted and forgot to pay. Therefore, the issue is solved. But if - in the end - it is not resolved it becomes a police mater and it is becoming a real drain on their ever decreasing resources.
“To that end I think it is fair that petrol station owners, the large and the small, look at ways of taking responsibility for their own businesses and reduce this police burden. Some already have pre-pay petrol pumps which stops the issue of anyone doing a runner – deliberately or otherwise. The question is then, why can all petrol stations not be either pre-pay or have electronic payment machines catering for all ages and all technologies?
“In the end we want our police force to be out meeting the real policing challenges that affect all our communities and that is not to say that theft from a petrol station is not a real challenge. Instead it is saying that there is a very easy solution to that particular problem and if we adopt it the PSNI are free to do other tasks.”
In 2016 the PSNI introduced a pilot scheme in two districts - Lisburn and Castlereagh, and Ards and North Down - which put the onus on petrol station retailers to track down drivers who fail to pay.
The scheme was criticised by several politicians and retailers, with some claiming it would only make the problem of drive-offs worse.
Brian Madderson, the chairman of the Petrol Retailers’ Association - which represents around 85 per cent of forecourt retailers in Northern Ireland - described Mr Beattie’s suggested “easy solution” as “absolutely a non-runner”.
“Many of these are family businesses that are fighting to survive and the only thing that keeps many of them going is the shops. Asking customers to pre-pay is not a business model that works for them,” he said.
“The pre-pay model simply doesn’t work as it would significantly detract from the number of customers using the shops.”
Mr Madderson said the issue of how to tackle “drive-offs” is something the association has been discussing with the PSNI for the past 18 months, but he stressed that it cannot be left to petrol station owners to police the problem.
Glyn Roberts, Chief Executive of Retail NI, agreed that the pre-pay model wouldn’t work for many petrol station owners.
He added: “Retail NI and PSNI are working together and with retailers across Northern Ireland to prevent unnecessary reports to police and to focus our efforts on catching those who deliberately fail to pay for fuel or commit other forecourt based crimes. Retail NI and PSNI continue to work closely together and with the business community in raising awareness amongst motorists and by supporting retailers through enhanced training and improved technologies. We recognise that not all reports to police turn out to be crimes and we are having some success in resolving this issue, but we also understand that in some cases, those who commit forecourt crimes are often associated with other criminal activities that can impact adversely on our businesses and our communities. By working together with the police and the retail industry we are committed to detecting those offenders and to keeping our communities safe.”