Petrol prices: fuel thefts from petrol stations up by 79% as drivers face soaring costs
Police recorded tens of thousands of bilking offences at petrol forecourts over the last two years.
English and Welsh police forces have recorded a 79% increase in petrol and diesel thefts over the last two years, an exclusive investigation has revealed.
Motorists have faced spiralling prices at forecourt pumps over the same period, with critics slamming the Government over its lack of action on the cost of living crisis.
Howard Cox, of the FairFuelUK drivers’ campaign group, said the response had been “clueless and inept”.
Our exclusive freedom of information investigation asked police forces across England and Wales for statistics on reported fuel thefts from petrol stations between June 2020 and June 2022.
The 25 forces that responded with comparable data for both months revealed a huge leap in numbers - from 1,156 in June 2020 to 2,065 in June 2022. Only one did not record a rise.
An average of 49 motorists drove off without paying every day during that 25-month period, the figures show.
The true total will be far higher, once the forces that did not provide figures at all, or which had figures missing for either June 2020 or June 2022, are taken into account. This includes densely populated Greater Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham.
Over the same period of time, the average price at the pump for a litre of unleaded rose 82%, from £105.17 in the week beginning 1 June 2020 to £190.93 on 27 June 2022, according to Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy data.
One force – Leicestershire – provided a detailed overview of its fuel theft incident logs, revealing the lengths motorists went to to get away without paying.
Multiple drivers used false or cloned plates so the vehicles could not be traced.
In one incident, a young man filled up his VW van before speeding off, and crashing into a BMW as he made his escape.
Another filled up a tank and two jerry cans before driving off having only paid for the tank.
In another report, the driver of an Audi A3 filled up six times in a week without paying. The registration number was reported to police each time. The investigation was later closed with no suspect identified.
The value of the reported thefts recorded by Leicestershire ranged from small amounts such as £4 to hefty bills topping £230.
There were 39,111 thefts reported in the two years across England and Wales, across 28 forces that responded, including three forces that did not have figures for every month. There were likely tens of thousands more across all 43 territorial police forces.
West Midlands Police and Surrey Police also recorded 9,327 and 1,594 ‘making off without payment’ offences respectively, but could not say how many involved thefts from petrol stations. Besides bilking, the offence could also cover people fleeing taxis, restaurants and takeaways without paying.
Cumbria, Suffolk, North Yorkshire, Durham and Gwent police all saw the number of recorded offences more than triple over the period, with Cumbria’s numbers rising by 620%.
But the forces with the most crimes were London’s Metropolitan, South Yorkshire, Kent, Lancashire and Hertfordshire. The Met - England’s largest force - had the most with 7,255 thefts in total. That’s 10 thefts a day, and reports rose by 42% over the two years.
Fuel prices have steadily risen over the last two years, but the sharpest increase happened after Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year.
Howard Cox, of FairFuelUK, said: “A small but mounting number of the world’s already highest-taxed drivers, worn down by eye-watering pump prices and our clueless Government’s inept handling of the cost of living crisis, are risking criminal records by not paying for their fill-ups.”
He said breaking the law could not be condoned, but said fuel duty should be slashed by 25p and a new regulator set up to oversee pump prices. He called on new Prime Minister Liz Truss to take urgent action.
He said the policy was a “no brainer” and current prices were “crippling low and middle-income families”.
Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Petrol Retailers Association, which represents independent forecourt owners, said the number of actual thefts could be far higher, as many businesses do not report to the police.
“We reckon the problem could be nearly double that,” he said.
“Some police forces won’t attend if the value is below £100. Many police forces have said they haven’t got the manpower.”
He said forecourt owners often take civil action to try to claw back the money instead. Many have started asking customers to pay at the counter before filling up, in a bid to cut thefts.
“We reckon the cost to industry is between £45m and £50m,” he said
“We represent about 5,500 independent businesses - they’re not BP, Shell or Tesco. Many of them are small business people. It’s very difficult to get that money back.
“I’ve got one member who has got 17 sites, his current electricity bill is £800,000. He’s just received quotes for a new fixed price offer of £3.4m. This is just another thing that has to be accounted for on top of the price of everything else.”
He echoed calls for a 25p cut in fuel duty.
“The Government should have gone harder on cutting fuel duty,” he said. “When the Chancellor was on his feet back in March giving us all a 5p per litre cut, the price of diesel went up by 4.5p as he was speaking. So it was almost wiped out on the day. They should have gone far further.”
RAC head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes, said: “It seems that the record high pump prices we’ve seen in the UK might be forcing some people into desperate measures. As well as being illegal, stealing fuel is bad news for everyone else, including the businesses who buy the fuel in the first place and other drivers who just want to fill up as affordably as possible.
“We continue to believe that more needs to be done to bring the cost of petrol and diesel down to fairer levels in the UK. Major supermarkets should be matching their independent rivals who are undercutting them in some parts of the country, and the Government should be going further in supporting drivers with a much deeper cut in fuel duty.”
A government spokesperson said: “Through our £37 billion support package we have introduced our biggest ever cut to fuel duty, saving the average UK car driver around £100, van driver around £200 and HGV over £1,500. This is in addition to saving the typical employee over £330 a year through our National Insurance cut and allowing people on Universal Credit to keep £1,000 more of what they earn.
“The Competition and Markets Authority has launched a market study into the supply of road fuel in the UK to consider what more can be done to ensure prices at the pumps are fair. If evidence emerges of collusion or similar wrongdoing, the regulator won’t hesitate to take action.”