Ombudsperson Update - Benefits Unsheltered (2018)
The report was produced after the Honourable Diane Lebouthillier, P.C., M.P., the Minister of National Revenue, requested the Ombudsperson assist in examining if any service issues exist for women when trying to receive their Canada child benefit (CCB) while residing in a temporary shelter with their children.
To determine the service issues, we contacted women’s shelters to discuss their awareness of the CCB. Based on their responses, the Ombudsperson decided to launch a systemic examination into the Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) communication and outreach efforts to shelters with respect to benefits. Our findings revealed the CRA:
- Did not have communication products or web content specific to persons using shelters, nor did it have specific procedures for its enquiries agents when speaking with organizations or a person using a shelter; however, it confirmed they were being developed.
- Shares a wide variety of promotional products with shelters that are used to educate both the organization, and the person using the shelter, about an individuals tax obligations and the benefits and credits they may be entitled to.
- Had inconsistencies in the outreach it did across Canada.
- Launched a community-based research project on persons using shelters and the barriers they face when accessing benefits and credits.
To address the findings, the Taxpayers’ Ombudsperson recommended the CRA:
1. Continue to find new ways to effectively inform, educate, and collaborate with organizations, to provide information on benefits and credits to persons using shelters.
2. Actively promote and increase awareness of outreach services and information available to organizations with respect to benefits and credits available to persons using shelters.
3. Ensure consistency across all provinces and territories in:
a. the promotion of outreach services available; and
b. the delivery of information to organizations with respect to benefits and credits available to persons using shelters.
The CRA agreed to implement the recommendations and provided an action plan outlining how it intended to address them.
Since the report was published, the CRA has provided updates to us on how it is following through with the recommendations. This is examined below.
Innovate collaboration with organizations
The CRA has demonstrated it has continued to find new ways to inform, educate, and collaborate with organizations, to provide information on the benefits and credits available to Canadians using shelters. For example, in 2019, the CRA informed us it established an outreach partnership with Women’s Shelters Canada which “connects shelters and shelter associations across provinces and territories, better enabling them to share practices, insights, and knowledge across the sector.”Footnote 1 The CRA also worked with the developer of Women In Safe Housing (WISH) software, to make sure information on benefits and credits reaches Canadians using shelters. Partnerships, such as these help the CRA reach and impact more Canadians using shelters.
In addition, with the restrictions imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) the CRA needed to be flexible in how the organizations it collaborates with assist Canadians. For example, the CRA is currently allowing the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP) and the Income Tax Assistance – Volunteer Program organizations to complete and file taxes by telephone or videoconference. This provides all Canadians, including those using shelters, with virtual access to not only benefit and credit information, but also the ability to file their taxes remotely. As the CRA has demonstrated, many Canadians have benefited from the virtual nature of these clinics. We encourage the CRA to continue to support this approach after the COVID-19 pandemic. Progressive changes, such as this, demonstrate the CRA has the ability to quickly innovate, pivot, and adapt to reach more Canadians, and we encourage the CRA to continue to do so.
Actively promote the CRA’s resources and increase awareness of benefits and credits available to persons using shelters
The CRA indicates it promotes its resources and seeks to increase awareness of the benefits and credits available to persons using shelters, by its continued focus on the CVITP and the Income Tax Assistance – Volunteer Program. The CRA indicated it created a 2018-19 to 2020-21 strategy to “increase the take-up of government benefits and credits by vulnerable individuals through enhancing awareness of benefits and credits and increasing access to free tax preparation services provided by the CVITP”Footnote 2 . We think the CRA’s approach in this regard is effective, as the volunteers at clinics will use the information they receive from the CRA to explain to Canadians the benefits and credits available to them.
In addition, in person outreach activities are also important to increasing awareness of the benefits and credits available to Canadians using shelters. In this regard, we are pleased to hear that between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, the CRA “conducted 128 outreach activities to shelters and organizations that serve them, connecting with more than 1,380 individuals across Canada who use and support shelter services.”Footnote 3
Delivery of benefit and credit information to organizations
Creating products that can be used throughout Canada can help to ensure the delivery of information to organizations is consistent. In this regard, the CRA has created consistency in the delivery of information on the benefits and credits available to persons using shelters, by creating a factsheet, poster, promo card, and a webinar designed for women’s shelters and making them available to its employees to distribute.
Moreover, the CRA has a publicly available Tax Tip, How to get your benefit payments while staying in a shelterFootnote 4, that was posted on December 4, 2017. The Tax Tip provides information that assists Canadians who are caring for children, but may not be getting the benefits they are entitled to.
Products such as these, are an important resource as they centralize information, making it easier for not only organizations, but Canadians to access.
The CRA’s webpage Organizations: Outreach activities just for you!Footnote 5 helps to ensure consistency in the promotion of the outreach services it has available across Canada. On this webpage, organizations can request the CRA provide outreach services to their employees or clients and can request the CRA host a booth or deliver a presentation. The CRA also offers tailored products to help inform the individuals they serve. We encourage the CRA to continue to provide this webpage, and if it increases engagement to this webpage the CRA will be provided with additional opportunities to impact more Canadians.
The key issues in the initial examination were the CRA not providing sufficient information to people using shelters on the benefits and credits available and inconsistencies in the outreach across Canada. We recommended the CRA take a targeted approach to improving the information it provides to organizations assisting shelters and to Canadians using shelters.
The Taxpayers’ Ombudsperson finds that the CRA has taken appropriate steps to address the recommendations in the Benefits Unsheltered report.
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