Event report - The UKSA, statistics and the Scottish referendum

Written by Thomas King on . Posted in Features

On Wednesday 2 October the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) held an event at the Royal Society of Edinburgh to look at how statistics will form part of the Scottish independence debate in the coming months. Both sides of the campaign will use statistical comparisons between Scotland and other parts of the UK which will present a host of issues on how accurately these comparisons will be interpreted. The speakers at the event set out to discuss how the debate can be kept informed and the validity of making statistical comparisons.

The meeting was held along with the release of a monitoring report on the use of official statistics in the referendum debate. David Rhind introduced the meeting and asserted that being born in Berwick to a Scottish father and an English mother gave him neutrality but questions should be limited to statistics not politics.

Andrew Dilnot commented on the importance of statistics being in line with the five points of the UKSA strategy. But also that the statistics being used were better than there being no agreed or common terms for a debate on the substance. He also noted that he was Welsh and therefore neutral, although he would be happy to take questions on rugby as well as statistics.

Richard Aldritt introduced the monitoring report and noted that the neutrality theme was wearing thin but mentioned that he was Irish. He noted that the extra-regio definition was new to him but fundamental to the debate. Consumers should look to the footnotes, not trust unofficial sources, and be prepared to ask what the assumptions were. He stated that many aspects of definitions will not exist until Scotland is a separate country, until then it is speculative. The monitoring exercise has led to a number of notes to producers and considerations on improvements needed to enhance comparability in the long term.

Sandy Stewart, coauthor of the report and based at the UKSA in Edinburgh went through a number of the charts. He noted the many differences depending on the treatment of extra-regio income. Scotland is treated as a region of the UK, along with the other nations and the regions of England.

Glen Watson introduced some existing statistics on comparable data. He also outlined plans for a compendia to be published in 2014. These would be on population and migration, national accounts, social issues and the environment. He also noted that as a region of the UK, Scotland is in an economically favourable position, particularly if London is regarded as unusual. In terms of population density, it is very rural, especially considering the concentration in the central belt.

Questions from the floor were asked by a selection of statistical aristocracy. The audience included Jill Matheson and John MacInnes plus several retired staff from official statistics and the RSS. Also some people from business were in attendance.

One interesting question focused on whether it was reasonable to assume the apportionment of national debt and associated interest following independence. When these were notional as held by Bank of England and paid to the Treasury. There was no obvious answer but it was acknowledged that the nature of an independent Scotland's national accounts would require some political decisions.

Concerns were raised that UKSA has been complacent about for the comparability of statistics between nations and regions in the UK. The monitoring had clearly raised some issues that users had with the comprehensiveness of official statistics. These extend to comparisons between English regions not just devolved nations.

Worries were also raised about international comparability. The report styles Scotland as a region of the UK rather than a potentially independent nation. The problem was raised that statistics are produced principally for political needs such as policy monitoring, and that international comparisons are secondary.

Concerns about misrepresentations by the media were more difficult. It was acknowledged that more mistakes are made than invented figures. Where misconceptions or confusion is present, UKSA might give advice or publish further guidance. Where ONS statistics are clearly misreported or misrepresented, they will respond directly to media or the journalist in question.

Richard Aldritt explained in an answer about apportioning oil revenues, that there is no 'official' statistics on oil and gas revenue in North Sea. Also, there are conflicting results from 'official' and unofficial projections. The unofficial projections are often academic exercises and are sometimes not very clear in the assumptions used. The official ones, are based on the GDP and apportionment, and they have issues associated but they are still the best available.

UK Statistics Authority Andrew Dilnot Sandy Stewart Richard Aldritt David Rhind Scottish referendum 2014

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