Fuel thefts from UK filling stations have reached record levels amid soaring pump prices.

Industry body the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) said drive-off incidents – where a motorist fills up and makes no attempt to pay before leaving – have increased by 61% so far this year, compared with the same period in 2021.

PRA executive director Gordon Balmer described the number of thefts as “going through the roof” with “10 incidents a day” being reported.

(PA Graphics)(PA Graphics)

Retailers will lose £25 million if the current rate of drive-offs continues for the next 12 months, he said.

Incidents of drivers claiming to be unable to pay for fuel they have already put in their vehicle – such as by forgetting their wallet – have also risen, reaching an annual cost to the sector of £16 million.

“You’re looking at nearly £41 million in terms of cost to industry of fuel either being stolen through drive-offs or people haven’t got the means to pay,” Mr Balmer said.

“It’s a really difficult issue at the moment, and on the increase.”

Asked whether retailers are receiving enough support from the police, he said: “With the pressure on the police over the last few years, many police forces have said ‘It’s not a criminal offence, it’s a civil offence, so you need you need to deal with it, and if the actual value of the crime is below £100 then we won’t send anyone out to police it’.

“This has been raised by myself personally with the Home Office.”

There has also been a surge in verbal abuse towards forecourt staff by drivers angry at pump prices.

Darren Briggs, chief executive of Ascona Group, which owns 59 filling stations across the UK, said: “We’ve had a huge increase of staff abuse at forecourt level.

“We’re getting reports virtually every week of customers being quite abusive because of what they’re seeing at the pole sign.”

He added: “It is tough out there to explain to customers how the market operates.”

Figures from data firm Experian show the average price of a litre of petrol at UK forecourts reached a new high of 191.2p on Tuesday.

The average price of diesel was 199.0p per litre, a fraction of a penny below the record of 199.1p per litre set on Saturday.

This led motoring groups to accuse retailers of refusing to pass on recent decreases in wholesale costs.

The RAC said there is “no rhyme or reason why average forecourt prices are still going up”, while the AA claimed drivers are “being taken for fools by retailers”.

Mr Briggs acknowledged that “fuel prices have gone through the roof” but stressed there is “huge volatility in the market” which means pump prices are largely dependent on the timing of when retailers buy new supplies.

Ascona Group needs a profit margin of “at least 9p per litre” to cover costs such as wages and utility bills but in the past two months it has been “lucky to make 7p per litre”, he said.

Mr Balmer said: “We’re making very, very thin returns as we struggle with the high fuel prices.”

He insisted all retailers have passed on the 5p-per-litre cut in fuel duty implemented by the Treasury in March.

Earlier this month, the Competition and Markets Authority launched a “short and focused review” of how much drivers are being charged for fuel after a request by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak told MPs on Tuesday that he will carefully consider calls for a “more substantial” fuel duty cut.

Amid concerns the previous reduction “didn’t really touch the sides” for hard-pressed drivers, he said when challenged in the House of Commons that he will take the recommendations “under advisement”.