44% of exports – data please!

I tried to find the most quoted figure used in the EU referendum debate. I am talking about the “44% of UK exports of goods and services are to the EU”. As a number on its own means little, a country breakdown or data for a few years would also be nice, I mused. I failed to find this on the ONS website and now offer a prize to the first person who can send me the data with source tables. 

I want to end up with an excel sheet showing the exports, imports and trade balance (goods and services, total or separate) in £, between the UK and each EU member. I’d also really like that as a percentage of the world total, ie the final column adding to the 44% figure, but I can do that myself! The first person to get it to me gets the prize which is a bottle of wine from an EU country of the winner’s choice. I can imagine there are some EU countries that have only a cottage industry (or less) in wine so the smarty pants data-wonk who wants wine from one of those countries will get a cash alternative instead. Experts, for example ONS and BoE employees, are excluded as doing this during working hours would be a waste of taxpayers’ money, unless of course they publish it on their corporate websites. Chris Giles at the FT is also excluded as he probably already has the data!

The 44% figure is all over the place. Notably it is in the leaflet that dropped on your door step a week or two ago and is available (post-free) here. Searching “government leaflet on eu referendum” on google gives you another 23,000 links if you missed it.

All I wanted was a country breakdown of the most important figure of our time? With a following wind an FoI request might get the figures before 23 June. Or I can crowd source it, hence the “competition”.

I have wasted hours trying to find this data (and on this blog) but it is important for the UKSA big cheeses to know that:

  • “basic” ONS data is hard to find
  • the context surrounding the biggest number in political debate can only be derived by an expert with lots of patience
  • the responsiveness of the ONS publications (to include the data that is topical) is not what it needs to be, and
  • the new website is not what it should be.

Users should not be forced to work so hard for data or be obliged to do without it.

That’s sort of the end of the blog. If anyone at the ONS wants to know how I failed to find the data, do read on ………..


My search started on the ONS home page. The “Business, industry and trade” tab at the top of the page leads to the “International trade” page. What then? I seem to be offered mostly balance of payments, goods or services data and I don’t really want any of those.

On the grounds that it has goods and services in its title, I click on the dominant link on that page headed “Balance of Payments: Trade in Goods & Services: Total balance: CP SA £m“. That page has a “correction” (reassuring?) on it, though it seems to be nothing to do with trade stats!

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 14.01.57.png

I click on the “Statistical bulletin, UK trade: Mar 2016” under “Publications that use this data” but realising that it is 47 pages and has no time series data tables on the end of it, I move on. I try the button by “Related time series” which leads to the “Time series explorer” where “4,323 time series data that are related to balance of payments”. Nope. 

Final chance, I reverse out to find a search bar and type “% trade goods and services eu”. (UKSA seem to think this is much better now since the web site relaunch, so I’m hopeful.) I get the page below:

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 14.16.27.png

82 results. I can scroll through that – though I embark on it more in hope than expectation. (I can already feel the onset of early stages RSI.) 

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 14.17.08.pngOn page 2, I get results “loading”. I give up

But no, why should I? I call the ONS helpline. The lady tells me to type “UK trade” in search bar. Go to main trade release. But she can’t find the figures there. (I’d already been to that one.) Refreshingly, she tells me “it’s difficult to know what they used” in getting the 44%. After a few more futile clicks, I was then passed to the experts who produce the trade figures.

She took me to the same release. Hurrah! There is the magical 44% figure. Under section 5 called “Longer-term perspective”! Of course. Where else could it be? 44% in the text and 43.7% in the table. Great.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 14.48.11.png

I then asked where a run of annual data could be found. If you scroll back to the top of the UK trade page, she said, there is a green block with “View all data used in this bulletin” written on it – click on it and then the top link on that page. Then click on “current”. (Why another click?) Then on the “xls” button. (Why another click?) Then save the xls sheet. (Why another click?) The second tab then gives the EU – non EU split. I then hear silence down the phone. BUT ONLY FOR GOODS!!!!!!!!! I am told you have to go to another table in another publication for the services figures, then download them, then do your arithmetic and hope you get it right. I am not bothering.

Oh, and it was very clear that I was not the first person to ring the ONS about this!



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