The UK is back in recession after a surprise 0.2% contraction in the economy in the first quarter of the year, official figures have revealed.
The decline in gross domestic product (GDP) was driven by the biggest fall in construction output for three years, while the manufacturing sector failed to return to growth, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
The preliminary estimate, which may be revised later, means the UK is back in a technical recession - defined as two quarters of decline in a row. The City had predicted the economy would scrape growth of 0.1% after a 0.3% fall in the previous quarter. The ONS's first estimate is done before more than half of the data has been gathered and some economists are hopeful that the figure will be revised higher in coming months.
But the current downturn is expected to be nothing like as severe as the previous recession of 2008/09, which spanned more than a year.
The return to recession will heap more pressure on the Government and fuel criticism that Chancellor George Osborne's austerity measures are choking off the recovery. Economists and business leaders have warned that a technical recession would hit confidence and could cause businesses to rein in spending at a time when they are being encouraged to invest to stimulate growth.
Mr Osborne said: "It's a very tough economic situation. It's taking longer than anyone hoped to recover from the biggest debt crisis of our lifetime - even after the recent fall in unemployment. But over many years this country built up massive debts, which we are having to pay off."
He added that the recession in much of the rest of Europe was hampering the recovery, but pledged not to abandon his "credible plan" to cut the budget deficit.
The services sector, which accounts for some three-quarters of the economy, saw growth of 0.1% in the quarter, after a decline of 0.1% in the final quarter of 2011. Retail sales were boosted last month by panic buying of petrol amid fears of a tanker drivers' strike and a heatwave encouraged people to buy summer clothes.
But the industrial production sector declined 0.4%, with manufacturing down 0.1% after a 0.7% decline in the previous quarter. The continued fall in manufacturing will come as a blow to the Government, which is hoping the sector will lead the recovery. The construction sector was the biggest contributor to the decline in GDP, with a 3% fall in the quarter, its biggest contraction since the first quarter of 2009.
But economists said the ONS's reading of the economy may be too gloomy, as recent industry surveys for the manufacturing and construction sectors pointed to growth. Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, said: "The underlying strength of the economy is probably much more robust than these data suggest. The danger is that these gloomy data deliver a fatal blow to the fragile revival of consumer and business confidence seen so far this year, harming the recovery and even sending the country back into a real recession."