Petrol theft that costs Victorian service station owners more than $20 million a year will be reclassified as a criminal offence if the Coalition is elected next year.

The pledge by Opposition Leader Matthew Guy to have “zero tolerance” for fuel drive-offs would reverse a policy the Coalition brought in itself in 2013 to treat the offence as a civil matter instead of a crime.

Service station owners say the policy has put most of the onus of policing fuel drive-offs on them and emboldened motorists to steal fuel in the belief they will get away with it.

The thefts cost each store in Melbourne about $186 a week, or $9600 a year, in stolen fuel on average, the industry estimates.

Under Victorian law, petrol theft is viewed as a civil matter in which fuel retailers can pursue people in court to recover the debt.

Retailers must also apply to VicRoads and Victoria Police to identify the alleged fuel thief’s vehicle before pursuing costs.

They argue the change four years ago has had the twin effect of encouraging drive-offs and discouraging retailers from reporting offenders because of a perception that police are not interested.

Chrissy Masters is HR manager for AA Holdings, which manages 53 BP outlets in Melbourne, and said stores were writing off thousands of dollars a year.

“We are probably in the vicinity within our companies of $150,000 to $200,000 a year,” Ms Masters said.

“But those figures have to be reported to us and there is a lot of concern that, because police are no longer taking those reports, our people are sometimes not reporting … so we think that it is far higher than what we have on record.”

Mr Guy admitted the change introduced by the former Napthine government in 2013 and maintained by the Andrews government had failed.

“Approaches in the past, though done with good intention, haven’t worked,” he said.

“It is time again to be tough.”

The Coalition has promised that fuel-drive offs would  become a specific crime category by July 1, 2019 should it be elected in November next year.

It will also set up a stolen number plate “clearing house” to expedite data sharing between VicRoads and Victoria Police.

This is because many fuel drive-offs are done be people who have committed other crimes such as stealing a vehicle or vehicle number plates, Coalition police spokesman Edward O’Donoghue said.

“Often a drive-off can be associated with other crimes, intimidating staff, harassing staff and tragically at times assaulting and severely injuring staff,” he said.

The convenience store industry welcomed the policy announcement.

Australasian Association of Convenience Stores chief Jeff Rogut​ said it had sought to have fuel drive-offs reclassified for years.

“It’s something our industry has been calling for, but has fallen on deaf ears for many years,” Mr Rogut said.

Last year a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into fuel drive-offs did not recommend reclassifying the incidents from a civil to criminal matter.

Instead it called for industry to adopt pre-payment as a defence measure.

A spokesperson for the Andrews government said it had established the parliamentary inquiry into fuel drive-offs and supported all of its recommendations.

“We will take our advice on these matters from Victoria Police, not the opposition,” the spokesperson said.

Extracted from WA Today.

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