Pandemic aid programs wound down more than a year ago, but Canada’s tax collectors are still combing through the receipts.
That is good, and necessary. No doubt some received funds who shouldn’t have. But what is not good is the CRA’s priorities: pursuing repayment from vulnerable populations with far more gusto than from (potentially) scofflaw corporations. The perception of fairness in the tax system is critical; the CRA’s lack of interest in recovering federal overpayments to companies undermines that perception.
The amount of money Ottawa spent was extraordinary. The Auditor-General of Canada, which released an audit of the main aid programs in December, found that $210.7-billion was sent out to individuals and businesses through programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. (The audit did not look at lending programs, such as the Canada Emergency Business Account, which cost an additional $49-billion, some of which will be paid back.)
Speed was of the essence – most programs have the word “emergency” in the name, after all – so there was not a robust verification process before payments were made. But recipients were warned that Ottawa might check in future.
Some Canadians clearly did apply inappropriately for funds, either out of ignorance, confusion or malice. The Auditor-General found $4.6-billion was overpaid to individuals.
The Auditor-General raised concerns about $27.4-billion in payments that needed a second look, including $15.5-billion made to businesses through the wage subsidy. The auditor derived that figure by comparing sales-tax returns, in which businesses have to report their revenue, with the income drops reported by those same businesses on their wage-subsidy applications. There may be reasonable explanations for some of those cases, the auditor said, but they surely deserve some scrutiny.
Not so, CRA Commissioner Bob Hamilton argued at a parliamentary committee in January. The agency was investigating businesses using its own methodology, which found them to be mostly compliant. Mr. Hamilton argued against the Auditor-General’s approach: “In my view, based on what we’ve seen so far, it wouldn’t be worth the effort.”
Auditor-General Karen Hogan pushed back at that same hearing, criticizing the effort the CRA was putting into business audits. “It’s really the amount of work and the extent of work that we don’t believe is sufficient in order to meet that fairness threshold of treating every taxpayer – whether they be an individual or a business – fairly,” she said. “If you’ve identified the potential 100,000 businesses that are not complying, to look at only a fraction of those is not treating every taxpayer fairly.”
And the CRA is certainly scrutinizing individuals. New figures released by Statistics Canada showed that recipients of the main individual benefits paid back more than $3.1-billion to the government in the first quarter of this year. That is on top of more than $2-billion repaid last year.
How is Ottawa recovering these funds? Partly by clawing back payments through support programs, such as it did with the Canada Child Benefit starting in March. As The Globe reported recently, these clawbacks are hitting financially precarious Canadians, such as single mothers and those living on disability benefits. The CRA should use compassion and find reasonable ways to solve this, such as long-term payment plans, and waiving interest.
Because of how Statscan tracks pandemic program spending, it’s not clear how much has been paid back by businesses that received wage subsidies. A CRA document tabled at a parliamentary committee in February suggests the agency had denied or adjusted $216-million in wage-subsidy claims during recent audits and levied $11.6-million in fines. That is less than 1 per cent of all benefits paid out under CEWS, far less than what has been recovered from individuals.
Could all businesses that received wage subsidies have acted totally by the book? Possibly. But it’s unlikely, given what the Auditor-General found, as well as other investigations, such as a Globe analysis that questioned how deeply many public companies fell into the red.
The CRA contends it’s not worth the effort to find out. The agency should reassess its attitude of indifference – billions of dollars, not to mention public trust in the tax system, could be at stake.