Business, Trade and International Development

Our Business, Trade and International Development domain oversees the regulation of statistics on company structure, size and location; closures or mergers; and turnover, international and UK trade, and research and development.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought uncertainty for businesses, and many have had to adapt to new ways of operating.

In 2020/21 we will focus on the public good profile of trade, business demography, retail sales statistics and keep a watching brief on international development statistics.

We will seek to raise the profile of business statistics produced by trade and industry bodies, through the promotion of the voluntary adoption of the Code of Practice amongst these bodies. The outcomes of this work will ensure policymakers, businesses and the public are well placed to understand the dynamics of UK business as the UK exits the European Union.

Contact Office for Statistics Regulation Business, Trade and International Development Regulators Chris Davies, Ben Bohane and Isabel Ralphs for more information.

Current issues in this domain


The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS’s) UK trade statistics are produced using high quality systems and processes. Data inputs are quality assured with suppliers and statistical estimates of the UK’s exports and imports are compared with those of trading partners to help better understand quality. Differences in these comparative measures, however, mean that a degree of uncertainty exists around the quality of these statistics and users will need to continue to take this into account in their use. ONS is aware of these concerns and continues to work to better understand the nature of the asymmetries and what they mean for quality.

OSR Position

ONS’s UK Trade statistics were de-designated as National Statistics in 2014. Since then, ONS has made significant efforts to improve the quality of these statistics.

Improvements have been achieved through a systematic review of statistical processing that has allowed ONS to identify and remove errors in published statistics. Development of a new IT system has streamlined the production of trade-in-goods and trade-in-services statistics onto a flexible, transparent, efficient and strategic platform, which has facilitated improved quality assurance and refined analysis.

Data quality has been enhanced through a comprehensive review of data source quality. This enhancement has been supported by an increase to the size of the International Trade in Services Survey (ITIS) sample in 2018, which enabled ONS to expand its trade-in-services statistics by country, activity, industry, business characteristics and mode of supply.

ONS has improved its engagement with its users, addressing their needs through the development of new statistics, and incorporating their requests into transparent and ambitious trade development plans for UK Trade Statistics.

One of the main remaining questions over the quality of ONS trade estimates arises from the uncertainty around differences in estimates of bilateral trade known as asymmetries[1]. All countries have asymmetries and addressing them is challenging. While ONS has not yet been able to quantify a significant amount of some asymmetries, we are encouraged by the international effort to attempt to do so, in which ONS plays a leading role. It was also good to see ONS publish in February 2020 updated estimates of trade asymmetries using the most recent Blue Book data. More recently, ONS has published its plans to examine these quality concerns further, including an investigation into the extent to which the ITIS survey covers the export and import activities of small businesses. A better understanding of this coverage should provide ONS with greater knowledge of this aspect of quality and improve the usability of UK Trade statistics.

ONS intends using the outcomes of its development work to construct an experimental reconciled asymmetry dataset, planned for autumn 2020. This dataset will be of significant value to policy makers as the UK negotiates trade deals with EU and Non-EU countries.

Resolving asymmetries is challenging, but with trade talks ongoing, it is now of paramount importance that these issues be resolved quickly to ensure that the statistics used to inform future discussions meet with the requirements of the Code of Practice for Statistics.

[1] Asymmetries are differences in trade data reported by one country and the corresponding data reported by a bilateral trading partner.

Planned Work

ProjectGeographyProject TypeTimescale
Annual Purchases Survey (Office for National Statistics)United KingdomAssessmentContinuing from 2019/20 : Phase 2
Annual Business Survey (Office for National Statistics)United KingdomAssessmentApril - September 2020
UK Trade Statistics (Office for National Statistics): Issue early OSR Position Statement on status of assessment in context of informing transition periodUnited KingdomAssessmentContinuing from 2019/20: Phase 2
International Trade in Services (Office for National Statistics)United KingdomCompliance CheckContinuing from 2019/20
Mergers and Acquisitions statistics (Office for National Statistics)United KingdomCompliance CheckApril - September 2020
ONS use of VAT data in Economic statistics (Office for National Statistics)UK, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Regions
Compliance CheckApril - September 2020
Retail Sales statistics (Office for National Statistics)United KingdomCompliance CheckOctober 2020 - March 2021

Published Correspondence –  Business, Trade and International Development domain

Publications – Business, Trade and International Development domain


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