Assessment report: Northern Ireland Broad Economy Sales and Exports Statistics

16 December 2021
Last updated:
21 December 2021


Experimental annual measures of NI businesses’ sales to markets outside NI were first published in 2015 (in respect of the years 2011 and 2012). NISRA published BESES in response to the need to improve the measurement of NI’s exports beyond that of the manufacturing sector. BESES superseded the statistics from the Manufacturing Sales and Exports Survey (MSES) which were designated National Statistics. Questions about the trading status of businesses were first introduced into NI’s Annual Business Inquiry (NIABI) in 2011, allowing these data to inform annual BESES.

The UK left the European Union (EU) on 31 January 2020. A new relationship with the EU has now begun, which includes the NI Protocol. As a result of the protocol, NI has in effect remained in the EU’s single market for goods (England, Scotland and Wales have left the EU’s single market for goods). This allows goods to flow to and from NI to the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU as they did while the UK was a member of the EU, without customs checks, tariffs, or new paperwork. BESES are the foundation for the trade components of Northern Ireland’s economic accounts which give insight into the structure and inter-industry relationships of the NI economy. BESES answer key questions about the health of the NI economy and the commercial success of businesses in NI and are used in the modelling and planning of the NI economy.

BESES are currently the sole comprehensive source of data on both sales by NI businesses outside the NI domestic market and international trade outside of GB. Users often identify this as a key strength of BESES, filling a significant data gap in relation to NI and GB trading activity. Prior to EU Exit and the NI Protocol, sales from NI to GB were all part of the UK’s internal market. With the NI Protocol and NI’s unique position of staying inside the EU single market it is vital that external sales to the different markets are measured.

BESES is unique in that it provides an estimate of trade in goods and services between NI and GB. This is particularly valuable in showing the relative importance of non-domestic trading to the NI economy. Other sources of NI trade data include HMRC’s UK regional trade in good statistics, which present data on NI’s trade in goods with countries outside the UK, but not currently between NI and GB. The absence of statistical data on trade in goods (at product level) between NI and GB is currently a significant gap in official data, particularly given the need to understand the impact of the trade border between NI and GB.

Without BESES, discussions in the run up to the EU exit on the relative importance of trade between NI and GB, and between NI and Republic of Ireland would have been less well-informed. BESES also highlighted the critical importance of cross-border trade for businesses close to the border and they uniquely demonstrated that those businesses with a larger share of exports relative to their share of employment were more likely to be located close to the Republic of Ireland border.

BESES cover exports (sales made outside the UK), external sales (sales made outside NI – to GB and the rest of the world), total sales for goods, total sales for services and imports and purchases. NISRA publishes BESES through three separate statistical reports: Headline results with estimates for Nl businesses’ sales to markets both within and outside Northern Ireland (exports and external sales) around 12 months after the reference period to which the statistics relate; further disaggregation of these results into the value of goods and services sold around 15 months after and the value of goods and services purchased by NI businesses (imports and external purchases) around 18 months after. NISRA publishes the statistical reports in several formats including HTML, PDF, ODS and Excel documents.

Data to produce BESES are collected through the NI Annual Business Inquiry (NIABI). The NIABI is an integrated survey that provides information on the value of the economic activity that businesses generate and associated expenditure across the main industrial sectors in Northern Ireland. The NIABI surveys about 20% of the eligible business population each year including: all businesses with 50 or more employees; all multi-site businesses with 20-49 employees; all manufacturing businesses with more than five employees; and a representative sample of other smaller businesses. The NIABI and BESES exclude the insurance and re-insurance industries along with public administration and defence plus agriculture, forestry and fishing. Other areas that are not covered are local authority and central government bodies in education and human health and social work activities. Medical and dental practice activities are also excluded from the survey.

The results from the NIABI and the BESES are essentially two outputs from the same survey. This allows users to analyse the BESES variables (sales and exports to broad destinations, turnover by industry sector, exports by industry sector, exports to markets within the rest of the EU and exports to markets outside the EU) in conjunction with the NIABI variables (business turnover, the value of the purchase of goods, materials and services and approximate Gross Value Added at basic prices and purchases). For example, analysts are able to undertake analysis of trade by industrial sectors and business size bands (based on employees or turnover), which has also been linked to the purchases of different types of energy (from the NIABI). All the statistics are produced on an equivalent basis, which removes any issues with mixing multiple sources for analysis. BESES include industry-level trade statistics (for which HMRC provides product-level information), this has been important over recent years as stakeholders have wanted to analyse the impacts on certain industries, that might be affected by EU Exit developments. The HMRC data alone would not facilitate this. BESES additionally provides a measure of imports and purchases from GB to NI which was particularly useful in providing analysis to users in informing EU Exit discussions.

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