UK manufacturers have taken another step towards recovery as the sector enjoys one of its best spells for two decades, a report has said.

The CIPS/Markit purchasing managers' index survey gave a reading of 57 for May, with 50 separating growth from contraction.

The figure is close to April's five-month high of 57.3 and maintains one of the sector's brightest spells of output and new order growth in the 22-year history of the survey.

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Markit said production is expanding at a quarterly rate close to 1.5 per cent, though the sector remains 7.5 per cent smaller than its pre-crisis peak.

It added the growth rate would mean a full recovery will not be achieved until late 2015.

The report revealed the upturn is being savoured by both small businesses and large-scale producers, with a sharp acceleration in demand for goods for plant machinery and a 13th consecutive month of rising employment.

Neil Prothero, deputy chief economist at EEF, the manufacturers' organisation, expects the sector to expand for a fifth successive quarter, its strongest performance in four years.

He added: “Signs of a pick-up in export orders are especially welcome, as the broader re-balancing story still requires a significant boost in net trade to support the recent rebound in business investment.”