On March 9, the NWN newspaper reported how a police sergeant told a public meeting of Hungerford Town Council that officers would no longer routinely be sent out to shoplifting crimes of, for example, less than £100 worth of goods.

Instead, it was said, such crimes would be investigated retrospectively, and possibly be dealt with by means other than the courts.

This prompted a denial from Thames Valley Police, which branded the story “inaccurate”.

The force then issued a statement insisting it would continue to actually investigate shoplifting offences – although there was never any suggestion from the Newbury Weekly News that it would not.

Meanwhile, a letter sent to Hungerford Town Council and other interested parties appears to confirm the position outlined at the meeting and reported by the NWN.

The letter states that, while the reference to £100 was “arbitrary”, it is nevertheless “significant in that police officers can, subject to the right conditions, issue offenders with penalty notices for shoplifting offences where the value of the goods stolen is under £100 instead of prosecution through the courts”.

However, such dispensation would mean the offender could avoid the shame of a public court appearance and attendant potential publicity – an issue which Newbury MP Richard Benyon has previously expressed concern over.

The letter goes on: “Clearly police attendance at incidents is prioritised according to the prevailing threat or harm to people or property… the subsequent investigation should be proportionate to the offence.”

A spokesman for Hungerford Chamber of Commerce, Nigel Perrin, said: “What is going on?

“We’ve got the police on the ground saying one thing and then the force issuing statements saying another.

“We’ve been trying to get clarification and we’re still waiting.

“What do our members do?

“Gone are the days when you could make a citizen’s arrest.

“Shopkeepers need to know.

“Can they apprehend someone? How long do they hold them? What do they do with them?”

One typical response from the public came from Hungerford resident Colin Tompkins, who said: “This to me represents a dereliction of duty to the public and is shameful.

“Hungerford will now attract all kinds of chancers confident in knowing that they can steal a few items and get away with it.

“Can you imagine the chaos that is going to happen in all of our shops and, in particular, the antique shops which are particularly vulnerable to theft?”

A spokeswoman for Thames Valley Police, Hannah Jones, said: “Your article was inaccurate in that it refers to officers not attending shoplifting offences in which items worth less than £100 are stolen.

“Each incident is responded to on a case-by-case basis based on threat, harm and risk.

“We investigate all reports of shoplifting – regardless of the value of goods stolen.”