07/09/2017 05:18 BST | Updated 07/09/2017 05:18 BST

Will Air Quality Laws Vital To Protecting Our Health Still Be Enforced After Brexit?

Kieran Doherty / Reuters

When I was born, in 1950s London, the city was still suffering from smogs so bad that thousands coughed and spluttered their way to an early grave. As a result, Parliament passed one of the world's first environmental laws - the 1956 Clean Air Act that put an end to the poisonous pea soupers.

Sixty years on, people are still dying prematurely because of air pollution in Britain. Today's traffic fumes may be less visible than the thick fug of coal smoke that used to smother the city, but they can be just as deadly. Nationally, around 40,000 people die early every year from breathing tiny particles of tyre and soot or nitrogen dioxide from diesel exhausts.

The EU passed legislation to deal with road side pollution some years ago, but it took two successful legal challenges, by London-based environmental lawyers Client Earth, and the threat of EU Commission fines to get the Government to publish new plans to keep air pollution breaches in our cities as short as possible. Yet as Parliament debates the EU Withdrawal Bill today, big questions remain over what will happen to laws on pollution after we leave the EU.

The Bill aims to copy and paste EU legislation across to ensure that there is no uncertainty about UK law on exit day, and to do this it gives Ministers very wide powers with much less scrutiny than legislation would normally get.

Of course, we need to try and minimise the disruption caused by Brexit, but the way the Bill is drafted and the nature of these proposed powers are a real cause for concern. And what's more, we don't yet know how the Government plans to oversee air quality in future.

So we need some answers. Firstly, who will monitor the UK's performance on air pollution in future after Brexit? EU environmental law currently requires member states to regularly report to the EU Commission on implementation, and the role of the Commission in monitoring progress, launching infringement proceedings and threatening fines when Member States fail has been key to ensuring environmental laws are effective.

Secondly, how will existing air quality rules be legally enforced and who will hold the Government and local authorities to account if they fail to keep pollution in check? In many areas of law - such as employment rights, family law and property rights - there are individuals or organisations with legal or economic interests they can defend. Our air and our environment are not legal entities in UK and so cannot 'defend' themselves in court. UK law allows environmental groups to judicially review decisions, but our domestic law does not have provision for the Government to be fined for breaching environmental law. We need clarity from the Government as to whether this important safeguard will continue.

Thirdly, how do ministers intend to use the so-called Henry VIII powers in this Bill? How can we be sure that EU-derived environmental laws will not be weakened without parliamentary scrutiny? The EU's role in protecting the environment - and our health - was rarely discussed during the referendum, but it is surely not 'taking back control' to hand Ministers such an extensive legislative blank cheque.

If people living in our towns and cities are to breathe easier, we need effective air quality laws to be implemented now to save lives and reduce ill health. Just moving across EU law without any means to monitor or enforce it won't help make that happen. That's why I will be raising this issue when we debate the EU Withdrawal Bill today. Britain has shown that it can lead the world on environmental legislation, as we did with the original Clean Air Act in the 1950s. The task now is to make sure that our air quality laws remain living, breathing and effective after Brexit.

Hillary Benn is the Labour MP for Leeds Central and chair of the Exiting the EU Select Committee