Quality of Scotland’s economic data slammed

9 Sep 15

Scotland lacks good enough data to support either current claims about its trade performance or the new economic powers coming to Holyrood under the Smith Commission reforms, according to a paper today from the Jimmy Reid Foundation.

The paper, written by independent economist Margaret Cuthbert, accuses both the UK and Scottish governments of “a fundamental failure” to collect, collate or analyse economic data adequately.

It is scathing about the claims of economic development agencies like Scottish Enterprise or its exports arm, Scottish Development International, to be doing a good job for the Scottish taxpayer when their outcomes are based on such inadequate statistical evidence.

“Without timely, good quality data on how well Scotland is performing on trade; without an analysis of trends; and without connections being made between trade patterns and trends in the economy, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how any government can devise, monitor, and evaluate the trade part of an economic strategy,” Cuthbert writes.

She focuses particularly on Scottish trade figures, which she portrays as an amalgam of patchy returns from exporters, trade body statistics, inconsistent categorisations, variable reporting lags, and supplementary data from UK sources.  They do not, she says, provide reliable details of company size, sectoral shares, North Sea oil & gas sales or exports from Scotland to the rest of the UK. 

With further economic and fiscal powers headed for Scotland under the post-Smith legislation, she argues, the need for more serviceable data – and more rigorous analysis of the trends they reveal –  will become more pressing.

“Without good data, economic strategies can end up as ‘wish lists’ and can actually harm the economy.”  It can also, she says, make it impossible accurately to assess whether, how or why past strategies have worked.

The paucity of good data on the Scottish economy has been a persistent grievance among commentators for many decades, especially pre-devolution when Scottish statistics were often abstracted from UK series, and based on dubious assumptions and small samples. Matters are generally held to have improved since devolution but not, in Cuthbert’s evident view, sufficiently.

“Unless there is a radical change in attitude, in systems, and in working methods by government and government agencies, Scotland will be seriously hampered in improving trade performance, and in particular in trade helping to make substantive inroads into austerity and improving economic growth,” she writes.

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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