Unemployment posted its largest increase for more than 13 years last month while growth in wages and salaries slowed, according to official statistics that cast fresh doubt over the health of the labour market.
The number of people joining the jobless benefits queue in February rose 14,600 to 919,700, the biggest monthly rise since December 1992, the Office of National Statistics said.
It marked the 13th consecutive monthly rise in the past 13 months, undermining prospects for economic growth and consumer spending in particular.
The wider measure of unemployment, drawn for the labour force survey, showed a rise of 37,000 to 1.53 million over the three months to January.
"Today's data is very weak, which adds to our concern about the prospects for consumer activity and the housing market in the months ahead," James Knightley, the UK economist ING Financial Markets, said.
British Airways added to the gloom by announcing plans to axe its 17-strong chain of high street travel shops in a move likely to affect about 300 jobs. Another 100 posts are under threat because of the likely closure of the airline's call centre in Belfast.
A further 500 jobs were threatened after Lloyds TSB detailed plans to close back office-processing operations at five locations in the UK
The data was published a day after Boots announced it was cutting 2,250 jobs and a fortnight after MFI warned 1,500 jobs could go as part of the company's restructuring.
The rise was caused entirely by an increase in joblessness among women, prompting speculation that retailers, hoteliers and restaurateurs were letting staff go. Separate ONS figures showed the number of jobs in those three sectors fell 38,000 in the three months to December, the biggest fall since the start of 2003. It was offset by rises in public sector and City jobs.
Meanwhile total employment fell for a third month in January, the first time it has done so since October to December 2000. However, the fall of 7,000 was relatively modest compared with a total workforce of 28.8 million.
A sharp decline in average earnings growth in the services sector helped prevent the headline figure from showing the increase that analysts had expected. …