Some CRA systems are ‘systemically oppressive’ towards vulnerable populations: taxpayers’ ombudsman

Systemic but unintentional barriers:

The federal taxpayers’ ombudsman says some of Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) processes are “systemically oppressive” towards vulnerable populations as well as indigenous, rural and northern communities.

“These (tax) filers feel they receive conflicting information, the processes are unfair and the CRA does not address their unique circumstances and needs,” Canada’s outgoing Taxpayers’ Ombudsman, Sherra Profit, writes in her 2019-2020 annual report published Wednesday.

“This general belief leads to reluctance to interact with a system much of the population believes to be systemically oppressive and in turn reduces the likelihood people receive all the benefits, credits and deductions to which they are entitled,” the report says.

That belief by indigenous, rural and northern communities isn’t just a question of perception, Profit later specified in an interview with the National Post.

“One’s perception is reality. It is their reality,” said the head of the taxpayers’ watchdog.

Over her five-year mandate that ends on July 5, Profit says she found multiple instances where CRA’s bureaucracy was overly rigid and had significant communication issues with taxpayers.

She says that can be particularly problematic for vulnerable populations who don’t always have quick or timely access to some basic services.

“There are aspects of the CRA systems and processes that will be more oppressive to certain groups (…) For example, so many people don’t have a family doctor. So asking for a letter from a family doctor isn’t going to work from them,” Profit said.

“There are also socio-economic classes of people who are in housing situations where it may be very difficult to get a lease or a letter on a letterhead from a landlord,” she said, adding that these CRA systems are not intentionally designed to be oppressive.

In her report, she highlights one particularly shocking case where a woman who depended on the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) for day-to-day living was suddenly cut off from payments and demanded to reimburse $16,000.

After she reached out to CRA for an explanation, the agency told her the documents she submitted in her reapplication after separation from her ex-spouse were “not legible”.

“Instead of requesting she resend them, the CRA stopped her benefits. The complainant resent the documents and called several times to get updates, without success,” Profit explains in the report.

It took an urgent intervention by the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman’s office to have CRA conduct a review of the file, according to the report. The CRA then understood why it was more difficult for the applicant to reapply for CCB.

“At this time it became known that her living situation was not safe and she was forced into an emergency shelter while trying to find permanent housing. Losing the CCB further complicated finding a suitable home for her children,” the report said.

At that point, the CRA not only quickly approved her new application, but also manually processed a retroactive CCB payment and then sent her the December payment early to assist with holiday spending.

“I do find there is a lot of breakdown in communication,” Profit said. “I know the CRA is making changes to how it administers programs like the CCB, but we’re finding we’re still seeing a lot of these complaints.”

Another issue she’s noted over her tenure as the taxpayers’ ombudsman is that various CRA departments tend to operate in silos.

That would explain why someone could be repeatedly asked by the agency to provide the same information or documentation over and over, for example.

“There are systems that don’t talk to one another, Profit said. That’s something I’ve really been constantly bringing up. (CRA needs) a more horizontal approach to look at things as a whole.”

Overall though, Profit says she’s encouraged by efforts made by the CRA to improve service to Canadians and gradually adopt more client-centric approach.

As an example, she noted the appointment of a Chief Services Officer in March 2018 whose job is to transform the agency’s culture and significantly improve the quality and speed of services offered to Canadians.

“They’re at least starting to talk the talk. They know there are issues, they know they are problems, and they have that Chief Services Officer who is looking at it with a whole-of-organization perspective,” the ombudsman explained.

But in order for her own organization to better do its job, Profit says the federal government needs to increase its budget and make her office report to Parliament.

As of now, the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman reports directly to the Minister of National Revenue, who is in charge of CRA.

“This structure creates an inherent element of conflict of interest in the ombudsman reporting to the Minister responsible for the department or agency the ombudsman is tasked with overseeing. A Minister has a vested interested in ensuring their department or agency is perceived to be operating effectively and efficiently,” Profit agues in her report.

Source: Some CRA systems are ‘systemically oppressive’ towards vulnerable populations: taxpayers’ ombudsman

Creation of ombud’s office urged to tackle immigration snafus

Not sure that adding another layer is necessarily the best approach compared to reviewing the overall processing system and making adjustments as necessary:

….These cases are problems critics say an ombudsman at the immigration department could easily fix, saving taxpayers money for reprocessing and potential litigation, and immigration applicants the agony of having their lives thrown into disarray.

“These are the majority of problems people have day-to-day that could be resolved if there is the will to cut through the red tape,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Raoul Boulakia.

“Immigration cases are expensive to litigate. In some cases, the court would not intervene and the process takes so long. Having an ombudsman’s office would be terrific.”

The idea of establishing a public complaints office at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has been floating around for years but never got traction because of the lack of organized efforts among applicants and Ottawa’s short-sighted arrogance to cater to foreign nationals with no voting power.

However, with the new Liberal government’s emphasis on transparency and accountability, critics say an ombudsman could aptly look at these systemic challenges and find solutions.

While Immigration Minister John McCallum agreed that “obviously there is enormous room for improvement” for his department’s service delivery, he is noncommittal to the idea.

“That’s what a lot of my job is about. We are trying to reduce processing times and improve services. The idea of an ombudsman is an interesting idea, but it might be a little bit duplicating of what my office and I are trying to do, and it would add costs. Our objective is similar,” he told the Star.

“If having an ombudsman would assist that task, I would consider it … if it’s value-added. Right now, people can go to their MPs, the MPs might bring it to me and we work on it. We certainly spend a huge amount of time dealing with these problems and cases trying to get the best outcomes.”

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union that represents the 5,000 immigration department employees, said frontline services have suffered after 10 years of cuts — staffing was down by 5.3 per cent while workload increased — under the previous government. That led to minimum service and sometimes tainted decision-making, the union said.

“Our members are caught between a lack of resources and instructions. They are being told you have two minutes to respond to a phone call, basically. That’s not worthy of client service in our mind,” said Chris Aylward, national executive vice-president of the union.

“It is nice for the minister to say he’s all for increasing the service and service delivery, but in order to increase service delivery, you have to make sure the resources, tools and training are there.”

The union is all for the establishment of an impartial office if it serves both the clients and its members instead of creating an additional administrative burden and more work under existing resources, Aylward added.

Queen’s University professor Sharry Aiken, who specializes in migrant law and policy, said an ombudsman could best handle administrative issues that emerge in application processing as a result of “misunderstanding, poor representation and human error” that could easily be fixed.

Currently, members of parliament are overwhelmed by constituents’ requests for assistance on immigration files for relatives and friends looking for updates on applications, and immigration cases are inundating the court system and tribunals.

Aiken said the cost of setting up a well-equipped ombudsman’s office at the immigration department could easily be offset by the savings in resources in other jurisdictions and improved operational efficiency. Meanwhile, the courts and tribunals should still handle cases involving errors in law, she added.

“The office would need the authority and resources to deal with these cases and circumstances,” said Aiken, who co-chairs the Canadian Council for Refugees’ legal affairs team. She said the danger of setting up an ombud’s office without proper resources is it would get swamped and couldn’t investigate complaints in-depth.

Source: Creation of ombud’s office urged to tackle immigration snafus | Toronto Star