The pensioners were outraged. On the day that Ann Widdecombe, Social Security minister, defended the plan in London, her elderly constituents in Maidstone described their views of it as 'unprintable'. Walter Scott, 77, said: 'I voted Tory but I wouldn't do it again.'
Ms Widdecombe said she was keen to reassure the elderly about the new VAT on gas and domestic fuel. But she had done a poor job, judging by the mood. Without exception, pensioners expressed fears of winters without warmth or light.
We were returning to the hardships of Thirties depression, according to one group of women. 'I'm really ashamed. You shouldn't have to go back to the old days when you had to put on woollies because you could not afford the gas fire,' said Ellen Taylor, 72, a widow living on pounds 57 a week. 'You shouldn't have to sit in the dark because you can't afford electricity.'
The lives of Ralph and Daphne Upward exemplify the privations already suffered by Britain's pensioners. The Upwards moved from a four-bedroom house in Maidstone to a nearby caravan park so they could manage on their pounds 93 weekly pension. Their only luxury is a W-registration Citroen Visa.
When VAT is added to their heating costs the car will have to go, and the afternoons out at Cambridge House - which will in turn push up heating bills. The outlook for future winters is bleak, despite hasty government pledges of extra financial help for the poor.
'We often have the central heating on all night because it's quite draughty. But that'll have to change,' Mrs Upward, 68, said. Her husband, 72, was angry: 'We don't want to go begging to anyone but we don't want to be abused.'
Bessy Patient, 85, and Ida Hendley, 90, used to clean floors together. Mrs Patient said: 'If the Chancellor was here I'd tell him straight to his face that pensioners don't have enough money to afford this.' Mrs Hendley added: 'I'll have to stop buying food when my bills go up.'
The pensioners' chat was all financial. Some had already calculated bills swollen by 17.5 per cent VAT. Mr Scott, a retired prison officer, said his heating and lighting bills would rise from pounds 240 to pounds 282 a year.
'Your blood's thinner when you're older. You need more heat and you spend more time indoors,' said Maureen Heard, 70, the centre's cook, adjusting her cardigan.