Average earnings rose by 4.2 per cent over the year to the three months to February, up from 3.6 per cent rate a month earlier - while prices as measured by the consumer prices index were up by two per cent.

National Statistics attributed the increase in earnings since January entirely to bonuses and some of that to changes in timing rather than larger amounts paid.

Not counting bonuses, regular pay was 3.8 per cent higher over the year, as it was in January.

Increases averaging four per cent in the public sector still outpaced a 3.8 per cent rise in the private sector, but not by enough to influence the rounded statistical average.

This growth in earnings shows no sign of pay bargainers starting to compensate for the sharp rises in oil gas and electricity prices, which the Bank of England fears could lead to an inflationary spiral.

The increase, indeed, is still well below the 4.5 per cent which the Bank is said to regard as is consistent with its two per cent inflation target.

"Overall underlying wage inflation , excluding bonuses, remains subdued," said Dr John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

"Against a backdrop of rising unemployment it is evident that the labour market is no threat to the Government's inflation target and that wage bargaining has not been adversely affected by last year's spike in fuel prices,

"Insofar as concern about the state of the labour market determines the (Bank of England's) monetary policy committee's next move on interest rates, these latest pay and jobs figures add strength to the case for a rate cut."

The impact of the growing bonus culture on personal behaviour is examined in research from Birmingham Midshires.

This shows that those receiving bonuses spend 21 per cent of the money on a holiday - against less than eight per cent for those with windfalls from other sources.

Forty per cent of bonus money is saved or invested, according to this survey, another 11 per cent used to pay down mortgages or other debts and only five per cent used to buy a new car.

When the windfall is a redundancy payment a much more cautious pattern emerges.

In the Midlands respondents said they would save or invest 39 per cent of windfalls from all sources and use six per cent to clear debts. Holidays account for 14 per cent. ..SUPL: