UK pay growth lagged inflation for the first time in over two years in early 2017, underscoring the growing Brexit squeeze facing many households. 

Excluding bonuses, earnings rose by 2.1% year-on-year, the weakest increase since July of last year and below expectations for a 2.2% rise in a Reuters poll of economist. 

That meant pay, adjusted for inflation, fell by 0.2% in the first three months of the year, the first fall since the third quarter of 2014. 

But while wage growth is weak, there are other signs of continued strength in the British labour market. 

The unemployment rate in the period between January and March unexpectedly fell to its lowest level in nearly 42 years at 4.6%. 

Economists polled by Reuters had expected the rate to remain at 4.7%. 

The number of people in work also rose by a strong 122,000, taking the employment rate to a new record of 74.8%, the Office for National Statistics said. 

The Bank of England is watching closely for signs of a pick-up in wages that could add to inflation which seems to be heading for around 3% due to the fall in the value of the pound since the Brexit referendum and as oil prices rise. 

So far the bank believes there is little pressure on most employers to raise pay sharply which could feed a more permanent inflation problem. 

Instead, the Bank of England has softened its previous forecasts for a rise in unemployment which it expects to stand at 4.7% this year, still above the level which it considers inflationary. 

A survey published earlier today showed inflation gnawed further into the budgets of British households this month, resulting in the sharpest fall in cash available to spend in two-and-a-half years. 

Earlier this week, another survey showed employers plan to increase pay by just 1% in the year ahead, the weakest rate since 2013. 

The ONS said workers' total earnings including bonuses rose by an annual 2.4% in the first quarter of 2017, edging up from growth of 2.3% in the three months to February and in line with the forecast in the Reuters poll of economists. 

The Bank of England expects wages to rise by 2% this year before picking up in 2018 and 2019. 

Data released yesterday showed UK consumer price inflation picked up speed in April to hit 2.7% and many economists think it will reach 3% soon. 

The ONS said today that the number of unemployment benefit claimants rose by 19,400 to just under 793,000 in April, slower than an increase of 33,500 in March. 

Economists taking part in the Reuters poll had expected the number of benefit claimants - which is considered to be a potential early warning sign of an economic downturn - to rise by 7,500.