Revealed: the nerve centre of animal lib

Danny Penman gains entry to the tower-block headquarters of Barry Horne's supporters
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MICHEL HOUSE looks a typical 1970s block of council flats, the kind you'd see in any city in Britain. But there is one singular difference: it is the spiritual home of the country's animal rights movement.

Activists flock to the Coventry block from across Britain, and from abroad, to live with and learn from those who share their ideals, including support for Barry Horne, who spent 68 days on hunger strike.

Until 1995, Michel House was just another block where it was easy to get a cheap flat to rent. Then one of the landmark events in the animal rights movement's history took place nearby: Jill Phipps lost her life trying to stop the export of veal calves via Coventry airport.

Ms Phipps was a tenant of Michel House, as was her mother, Nancy, and other activists went there to live to give her moral support after her daughter's death, and to have a handy base from which to continue their campaign against the exports. Mrs Phipps, a retired Bhs worker, is the undisputed grande dame of the block and one of the movement's most ardent campaigners. Her unremitting fight for animal rights has earned her a short stay in prison for breaking into a laboratory in search of evidence of animal testing.

Since then, partly attracted by the rents, which average just pounds 40 a week for a flat, other prominent activists have moved in. One is Alison Lawson, the closest friend of Barry Horne. John Curtin, a softly-spoken former land surveyor and inhabitant of 16 prisons and 100 cells, is another movement hero. Always relishing a challenge, it was Mr Curtin who spent a week trying to convince a sheep farmer that animals had rights, for the BBC2 programme Living with the Enemy.

The residents of Michel House - which boasts "the only all-vegan floor in a British council block" - also like to enjoy life. They always throw a huge party when an Animal Liberation Front prisoner is released from jail.

Among the celebrators are activists from all over the world. This year alone, scores from Sweden, Germany, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Spain and Australia have come to learn how to protest more effectively.

But now a cloud has been cast on the movement by a city council initiative to improve life in Michel House and other nearby blocks. Dozens of CCTV cameras and elaborate concierge facilities have been installed. The town hall says they are there to reduce crime and protect residents. The residents differ. Suddenly they feel vulnerable.

"It's like an open prison," says Mr Curtin. "The cameras follow you as you walk around. I think it is some kind of experiment. They've even put the rent up by pounds 5 a week to pay for it. We're paying for our own prison."

Almost wherever you look in Michel House, you catch the gaze of a camera. Hidden in walls and walkways, tucked away discreetly in lifts and behind trees, the cameras are everywhere.

All visitors to Michel House have to check in at a heavily staffed entrance gate. Before you are allowed in you are again covertly filmed and a resident has to identify you positively. Only then are you allowed to sign in.

"I don't know what the police are going to do," says Mr Curtin. "Are they going to wait for an invite?"

Judging by the number of paper aeroplanes made from police arrest warrants and eviction notices, the local law enforcers will have to wait a long time for a formal invitation to an ALF prisoner release party.

Although the high-profile surveillance facilities are the main talk of the moment, politics and the fate of Barry Horne are never far from the minds of the residents.

Horne may have ended his hunger strike but many of his Michel House friends fear he will still die because of the "damage" inflicted on his body. They claim that he was moved from hospital to a relatively cold prison cell where he was left to die.

There is also anger at the way, they say, Horne's closest friend, Miss Lawson, was portrayed in the media as a woman prepared callously to sacrifice him for a principle. Horne made Miss Lawson his legal next of kin, and so she was, at least in theory, partly responsible for his welfare if he slipped into a coma.

Nancy Phipps says: "The press kept on saying that Ally had Barry's life in her hands. But she didn't. Barry had made a living will. Nobody wanted to see him die. We all dearly hoped that he wouldn't go on hunger strike in the first place."

The greatest anger, though, is reserved for the Labour government, which, they say, is abandoning all the promises on animal welfare it made before the election.

Mr Curtin says: "It was the first time that any party had promised to do anything for animals. They promised that they were going to ban hunting and fur farming. And they said that they were going to appoint a Royal Commission on vivisection.

"They virtually said they were going to end live exports and improve the welfare of animals in zoos and circuses."

Nancy Phipps interrupts with a cup of tea with soya milk: "I think they intended to go through with the promises but they've been got at by those with money and power. They've been scared off." After a short pause Mr Curtin then says: "Well, it's now the perfect breeding ground for people like me who have no faith in democracy."

The talk drifts on to why they break the law to try to improve the welfare of animals. It is quite clear that the campaigners see themselves as the intellectual inheritors of those who fought against slavery, founded the unions and battled for sexual equality.

"The Suffragettes called it the politics of the brick through the window," says Mr Curtin. "Whether you like it or not, it grabs attention. Marches of 10,000 people can be ignored but if one person throws a brick through a window the issue is put on the agenda.

"It may sound arrogant but animal rights are the logical next step in social evolution. That's why the authorities are so worried. That's why we always go to jail for so long."