BP signalled a further step in its recovery today by hiking its payout for shareholders for the first time since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Chief executive Bob Dudley said the oil giant, which accounts for one pound in every six invested by pension schemes, remained on the "right path" as he unveiled a 14% increase in the company's dividend to 5.1p a share.

Meanwhile, the group said that, as of December 31, it had paid out 7.5 billion US dollars (£4.7 billion) for individual, business and government claims since the incident, which claimed 11 lives, as it prepares to go on trial at the end of this month.

Mr Dudley said: "As I have said before, we are prepared to settle if we can do so on fair and reasonable terms, but equally, if this is not possible, we are preparing vigorously for trial."

Elsewhere, BP reported annual replacement cost profits of 23.9 billion US dollars (£15.1 billion) in 2011, compared with a loss of 4.6 billion US dollars (£3.1 billion) the previous year.