News from ITSUG


Report by Gerald Harvey of meeting of 17 June 2002

Carole Rennie, ONS, who is managing the joint ONS/ Customs Quality Review of Balance of Payments and Trade Statistics, part of a rolling 5-year programme of ‘key output’ reviews under the Government’s ‘Building Trust in Statistics’ White Paper, described how it was being undertaken. It would look at all aspects of the Trade Statistics service quality, including relevance and accuracy as well as efficiency and the burden on data suppliers. 

Its scope included trade in goods and services, income (from investment and employment), current and capital movements, and the investment position. Aspects to be considered included user requirements, timeliness/cost effectiveness, inputs and methodologies, and burden on data suppliers. 

The planned review timetable was: consultation with stakeholders (June/August); analysis (September/ October); report (November/December); implementation of results (by March 2003). 

The review process aimed to elicit answers to a number of questions. What are users’ needs? Do the outputs meet users’ needs and are they of adequate quality? Are the inputs appropriate and are they fit for the purpose? Is the burden on suppliers justified? Can the information on quality of outputs available for users be improved? During the subsequent discussion, it emerged that the consultation phase would be by questionnaire to stakeholder organisations, ie both users and suppliers of data. The report would go the NS Economy Theme Group as well as being posted on the NS Website – users were welcome to comment on it when published. A ‘reconsultation’ phase in January/February 2003, with an advisory group – Statistics Users’ Council, Institute for Fiscal Studies, DTI, HMCE, Treasury, Bank of England – would be informal. Some users did not consider this representation wide enough though Carole stated that around 50 stakeholder questionnaires would be considered. Decisions arising from the report would be taken by the Economy Theme Group, which was linked to the Commerce and Industry Theme Group through membership of Glenn Everett, who chaired C&ITG. A response from ITSUG might be considered useful at this stage also. 

During the ‘reconsultation’ stage the cost of implementation of any decisions taken would also be considered; with a limited budget available, there would be competition for it between individual recommendations. 

The review would not itself take account of ‘mirror image’ quality comparisons with other national data; Customs in any case were themselves undertaking several such studies. A user pointed out that the single most cost-effective improvement to trade data that could probably be made was compulsory quoting of commodity codes on trade invoices, since they had anyway to be quoted on shipping documentation. 

A supplementary question ONS/DTI were considering was how data should be published in future, whether paper publications such as the OTS book were still necessary, and, for instance, which of the General/Special trade bases was better for customers. It was important to know also what customers wanted but could not currently get as well as what was produced but should be stopped. The OTS book notes were probably already available on the HMCE website but, in any case, could be put there if paper publication were stopped. 

Other points made included: speed and 8- digit precision were the key for industry users, with volumes much more important than values. HMCE confirmed they would maintain their confidentiality ‘rule of 3’ even for historical data. They considered country of origin questions, as asked by many EU member states, to be illegal. Discussants felt that this made the still-existing provisions under EU law for national import safeguard action unworkable, but it was thought they could be surveyed voluntarily with reduced frequency; however, this could be compulsory only where illegal trade was suspected. 

In trade statistics, proponents of the burden argument conveniently forgot that the majority of the questions on an INTRASTAT declaration were included for administrative purposes rather than for users; all that industry users wanted was volume (or weight) and value. Some of the questions were also not needed for Balance of Payments purposes. A number of the boxes such as ‘export and import for processing’ were required under international treaties. The Trade Challenge procedure was felt to be operating acceptably. 

Further information could be viewed at: methods/economy.asp 

In outlining the range of sources of international trade data, Ian Maclean said that goods trade data were now as available as they had ever been, especially internationally. UN annual CDs were now available up to 1999, and the data they contained would soon be available on its website. OECD data covered just the 30 most-developed countries but were available monthly or quarterly. Both of these had now converted from the lesswell- known SITC to HS classifications. Comext, the Eurostat database was available back to the 1970s at full 8-digit level, subscriptions to monthly CDs had been available since 1990 very cheaply (about £5000/year) and the information would also soon be available on the Web but was likely to go up in price. 

Within the UK, 4-digit information was available free from HMCE’s website, with full 8-digit access very cheap at around £1500. Until 2 years ago, data agents had been the only UK source, of whom only 4 were still extant, but these still had advantages for their tailored services. Internationally, there were around 40 data brokers, of whom the largest was Global, offering information on some 40 countries. TRI were the leading US firm, offering extended services such as forecasting, but were expensive. European equivalents included DSI in Germany and a Swedish company. His own company, B&TS now offered 34 countries. 

The reason for differences between HMCE and Comext data for the UK was because of different transaction date definitions – HMCE used ‘General Trade’, when the consignment crossed the border, compared with Comext’s ‘Special Trade’, which used as its basis the date of the consignment’s release to circulation. There was a good section on these definitions in the ‘OTS’ book, as well in the RSS Reviews of United Kingdom Statistical Sources. 

There had not been a noticeable rise recently in amendments to HMCE’s figures over time; there had been a bulge after the introduction of INTRASTAT in the early 1990s but since then they had settled down.