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Petrol stations 'encouraging theft'
Petrol stations and supermarkets are encouraging theft by failing to take measures to stop customers leaving without paying, a Home Office minister has said.
Crime minister Norman Baker questioned whether police should respond to reports of motorists driving off without paying for fuel, if forecourt retailers are not willing to stop the practice by demanding pre-payment at the pump.
He described the self-service tills which have become a common sight in supermarkets across the country as "an invitation to steal".
Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Baker suggested that petrol companies have taken a calculated risk by not requiring all 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 the shop after filling up.
"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," said Mr Baker.
"The question in (my) mind is if they're 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."
He was also critical of the growing trend for supermarkets to encourage shoppers to check out their own purchases: "If the self-service till is next to the door, the doors are open, there are no personnel from the shop in sight, the tills are some way away, then it's an invitation to steal."
The Liberal Democrat minister's comments come weeks after figures from the Office for National Statistics' crime survey showed shoplifting up 6% year on year, at a time when overall crime has fallen significantly.
Across England and Wales, police recorded 317,027 shoplifting offences in 2013, with 34 of the 43 force areas recording an increase compared with the previous year.
But the director of business and regulation at the British Retail Consortium, Tom Ironside insisted that retailers "do not tolerate theft in any form from their stores", telling the FT: "Businesses spend millions on loss prevention each year, ranging from physical security measures to staff training."
And Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers' Association, told the paper that compulsory pre-payment at pumps would cause a "grievous loss of trade".
"(The police) have no right whatsoever to interfere with our business model," he said. "We only live as forecourt retailers these days by dint of our shop sales. The margin on fuel has almost disappeared and the reason is the supermarkets selling at or below cost."
AA president Edmund King said: "Drivers want a choice as to whether they pay at the pump or in the garage shop.
"It seems grossly unfair to suggest that all drivers should pay at the pump due to the criminal activity of a minority of crooks in cars. Rather than passing the buck we need better technology to defer fraud and more cops in cars to catch these fraudsters."
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: "It is frankly unbelievable that a Home Office minister should suggest the police should just ignore people who steal petrol or from a supermarket.
"The idea that petrol stations and supermarkets are encouraging theft is ridiculous. Rather than blaming the victim of crimes, Government ministers should be ensuring those responsible are caught and prosecuted.
"This sends out completely the wrong message."