“We have not received a valid entry – Goodbye”

Guest author John Stapleton (noted writer, professor, policy analyst, advocate, CARP members) writes about the tax form change and the abolition of the Telefile service.

In the early part of each calendar year, I buy a copy of TurboTax and learn the tax changes for the upcoming year. From mid-March to the end of April, I spend a lot of time explaining the personal income tax system to people who complete income taxes for others, especially those who have low income.

I also complete tax returns for a few low income pensioners who have trouble completing their returns.  For years, I took down all the information and then mailed each one a (pdf) copy of their return. They would dutifully attach all their information slips, copies of their medical expenses, sign and date the return, and mail a fat package of paper into the Canada Revenue Agency.

One of the most difficult hurdles in convincing seniors to file over the internet is their abiding belief that the CRA will not accept a tax return without their signature and the paper proof they feel is required. When you tell them that the CRA likely has all the information they need, they are thunderstruck.  They wonder why they would need to file a return in the first place if the government already has the information. I always tell them that “the government wants to hear their side of the story”.

Over the years, the reporting of personal income taxes has become more and more nuanced and complex. E-file, Netfile, and Telefile to those I advise are far off concepts that have little meaning. But completing one’s return has become much more important since the federal and provincial governments increasingly use the personal income tax system to deliver benefits through the tax system.

For lower income seniors, failure to file doesn’t mean that they are beating the taxman; it means that the taxman is beating them.

And that is exactly what is going to happen later on this year. Many low income seniors and others who cannot travel easily or who have trouble using the phone will be especially hard hit. For those who cannot travel and have no access to a computer or touch tone phone, the hardship will be acute.

Let’s look at what the Canada Revenue Agency is going to do this year and listen to their explanation in their own words.  I follow each part of their explanation with a comment:

“The way Canadians are filing their taxes and doing business is changing, and the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is changing to meet these expectations. The CRA monitors and refines its business processes on an ongoing basis to make sure it uses its resources responsibly and remains efficient and effective in delivering services to Canadians.”

This is government-speak that tells us that the government is going to make things easier for itself.  But is it using its resources more responsibly when it stops providing a needed and expected service to the most vulnerable of Canadians? You be the judge.

“The CRA encourages taxpayers to file and pay electronically, and more Canadians than ever are making the shift to the CRA’s quick, easy, and secure online services.  The CRA’s move to online services reflects a commitment to ensure service excellence and responsible use of taxpayer dollars.”

In talking to seniors, most understand that this means that the government wants them to file and pay electronically.  But many are flabbergasted when they understand that the government does not want them to use the mails at all.  They ask: “Why is the envelope attached to the return? or “I thought when you did the taxes on the computer that that meant we were doing something electronic”.

The bottom line is that the CRA has not been clear. They need to tell tax filers that they no longer wish to hear from tax filers by mail at all and they do not need the paper tax receipts that many send to them by mail.  This is a sea change and it will take a long time to accomplish. Pulling the plug overnight does not achieve the CRA’s goals. It can only set them back.

“A significant majority of Canadians now file their tax returns online. In 2011, printed packages for approximately 1.3 million individuals went unused.”

The first statement is undoubtedly true but the second statement is preposterous.

First, the printed package serves the purpose of reminding tax filers that is tax time. It contains useful information about key dates, changes in tax forms, deductions, credits and rules. It helps tax-filers to gather and organize their information and to stay vigilant concerning missing information. Just because tax filers do not use the printed package to physically file their return by mail does not mean for a minute that the package went unused.

For example, I would not even consider going out to do someone’s taxes without a full printed package of the T1 return. While entering information on the computer, I do not go a minute without referring to the printed package for information and confirmation. It will be make it much more difficult for me to fill out returns online this year now that I understand that those who I help and advise will attend our meeting without their printed package.

“While the CRA will no longer mail T1 personalized income tax packages, taxpayers can still file on paper. T1 General guides and forms are available on the Web, at Service Canada and Canada Post outlets, or by calling 1-800-959-8281.”

OK – now it’s time for a little reality therapy for the CRA. The seniors who I will help this year do not have a computer and don’t have access to the web when I bring my laptop to their kitchen tables. The 22 km. drive to the nearest Service Canada Centre is not easy for them. Besides, the Canada Post outlets are just as far away when you live in the country.

When I went to my postal outlet on Friday, they had a few packages left. By Saturday, they were cleaned out.

But all that aside, just try calling that 1-800 number with a rotary dial phone with no push button option. I tried again but the system presupposes that you are able to push telephone keypad buttons in order to obtain the information. To get to a live person, you have to push a button.

When I failed to push a keypad button, the options were repeated and then the systems told me that “it had not received a valid entry” and thanked me for calling.

Unfortunately that’s the message for the poorest, the most underserved, those least able to travel, those with the poorest eyesight and the greatest losses in hearing:

“We have not received a valid entry – Goodbye”.