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The federal government has asked Canadians to return $11.2-billion in overpayments it made through the two largest pandemic income-support programs for individuals, an analysis by The Globe and Mail has found.

As of the end of September, according to the analysis, Canadians had paid back $4.1-billion worth of both benefits – the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB). Another $7.1-billion in assessed overpayments are still under collection.

The Globe gathered the information from documents tabled in the House of Commons and numbers supplied by the Canada Revenue Agency, which administered part of CERB and all of the CRB program, and from Employment and Social Development Canada, which distributed CERB to those who were eligible for Employment Insurance.

The government is seeking repayments from individuals it found to be ineligible for all or part of the pandemic aid they received.

The Auditor-General, in a December, 2022, report, estimated that Ottawa had overpaid a minimum of $4.6-billion to ineligible individuals, which also included smaller pandemic programs other than CERB and CRB. In the same report, the Auditor-General identified $12.1-billion worth of possible pandemic overpayments to individuals that the government should investigate.

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When the federal government brought in both benefits, it decided to implement limited eligibility checks for applicants to keep the process simple and be able to provide quick financial aid. Ottawa warned benefit recipients that it would conduct more in-depth verifications later on and that anyone found to be ineligible would have to pay the government back.

At the time, some public policy experts praised the approach, which they said was necessary for providing fast financial relief to Canadians in need. Others, however, accused Ottawa of carelessness with taxpayers’ money, saying a lack of adequate prepayment controls would make it easy for ineligible applicants to claim funds that would be difficult to recoup later.

Over all, Ottawa distributed $103.2-billion through the two benefits in 2020 and 2021, with CERB accounting for just under three-quarters of the total.

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According to federal legislation, the government has up to three years to conduct eligibility checks from the time it paid out the benefits. For example, for a payment issued in April, 2020, the eligibility check must take place no later than April, 2023. While that timeframe extends to six years in cases where benefit recipients are suspected of misrepresenting information, the rules mean Ottawa’s eligibility controls are generally over for benefits it paid at the earliest stages of the pandemic.

CERB, which kicked off in early April, 2020, with eligibility retroactive to mid-March, and later CRB, provided taxable payments of $500 a week to Canadians who couldn’t work or had seen their income drop as a result of the disruptions wrought by the pandemic

While Employment and Social Development Canada, through Service Canada, administered CERB for those who were eligible for Employment Insurance, the Canada Revenue Agency handled CERB distributions for the self-employed and others who didn’t qualify for EI. The tax agency also administered the CRB program, which became available in September, 2020, as CERB ended.

The Canada Revenue Agency had collected a total of $1.7-billion as of the end of September, with $1.5-billion coming from CERB repayments and $200-million from CRB, the agency said. That’s up from $925-million the agency had recouped in CERB, CRB and other individual benefit overpayments as of June, 2022, according to the Auditor-General’s report.

The agency also said in documents tabled before Parliament that another $5.9-billion in CERB and CRB debt was still outstanding as of Sept. 29. Those numbers don’t include repayments of CERB that was administered by Employment and Social Development Canada, Canada Revenue Agency spokesperson Kim Thiffault said.

Employment and Social Development Canada recouped $2.4-billion, up from $1.4-billion the department had collected as of July, 2022, according to the Auditor-General’s report. Another $1.2-billion is still outstanding, department spokesperson Maja Stefanovska said via e-mail.

While the federal government is under pressure to recover overpayments of pandemic benefits from individuals and businesses, anti-poverty advocates say collection efforts have been overly harsh on lower-income Canadians. Ottawa, for example, has provided limited opportunities for those struggling financially to access longer repayment timelines.

The Canada Revenue Agency said in the tabled documents roughly 883,000 individuals still owe CERB or CRB debt. Of those, nearly 205,000, or roughly 23 per cent, reported income below $5,000 in their 2022 tax return.

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