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[LONDON] Growth in Britain's dominant services sector eased back in February but firms hired staff at the second-fastest rate on record, wages rose and new orders increased, a further sign that the economy has got off to a strong start in 2015.
The Markit/CIPS UK Services Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) slipped more than expected to 56.7, from 57.2 in January.
But survey compiler Markit said wages - a crucial issue for the Bank of England as it tries to decide when interest rates should rise - were a "primary driver" behind an increase in costs in the sector. "The combination of relatively robust economic growth, the improving labour market and signs that wage growth will pick up in coming months suggests the Bank of England will come under increasing pressure to tighten policy later this year," said Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit.
Following upbeat PMIs for manufacturing and construction earlier this week, Markit said the surveys signalled economic growth of 0.6 per cent in the first three months of 2015, quarter-on-quarter, speeding up from 0.5 per cent at the end of last year.
That would be welcome news for Prime Minister David Cameron. He hopes Britain's economic recovery will help persuade voters to return him to power in a May 7 national election, although current opinion polls indicate Cameron's Conservatives and Labour, the main opposition party, are virtually neck and neck.
The PMI's jobs index edged up to 57.3 in February, the second-highest level in the survey's 19-year history after a record peak hit last June.
The latest official labour market data showed British pay growth in December outstripped the country's dwindling inflation rate by the widest margin since before the financial crisis.
The service sector survey published on Wednesday showed confidence about the next 12 months hit a three-month high.
The UK composite PMI, which combines data from manufacturing, construction and services, inched up to 57.0, a three-month high, from 56.9 in January.