Business owners who sought tax advice from the Canada Revenue Agency were given incorrect information 25 per cent of the time, according to an internal survey.

The survey also found that 44 per cent of callers had to dial the help line multiple times to reach the automated system. It took the average caller nearly three attempts to reach a CRA agent.

The CRA’s own findings are even worse than reports issued by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which twice gave the agency’s business call centre a grade of C –

A CFIB survey conducted in the summer of 2012 found that 19 per cent of inquiries received incorrect or incomplete information from the CRA agent, and that 20 per cent of calls either did not go through or were dropped.

In the wake of the CFIB’s damning analysis, the CRA ordered its own survey. In November and December of 2013, anonymous agency employees made just over 500 calls to the CRA’s three call centres dedicated to inquiries from business owners to randomly ask nine questions.

The general inquiries included questions about applicable GST/HST rates, payroll remittances and deadlines for submitting corporate income tax returns.

Based on the CRA agents’ answers to those questions, the agency pegged their accuracy rate at 83 per cent in an internal report from March 2014. 

However, the CRA arrived at that figure after excluding one of the nine questions because it was answered correctly only 21 per cent of the time.

Before that question was excluded from the survey, the overall accuracy rate of the CRA’s business help line was 75 per cent.

The question, referred to as a “significant outlier,” was redacted in the internal CRA document obtained by CTV News.

The CRA had previously reported a 92.5 per cent accuracy rate for business tax inquiries, based on more than 54,000 calls.

“That's an agency and a government that knows it has been caught and now wants to skew the numbers to make it look not so bad,” said NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen, who called for a full investigation into the CRA’s mistakes.

"You have to look back through any case that was touched by this bad advice and make sure that nobody was harmed," he said.

CFIB president Dan Kelly called the CRA survey “scandalous.”

He said some owners have “not only lost their businesses, but in some cases, have lost their house or lost their marriage,” as a result of bad information provided to them.

“The consequence to the individual taxpayer is high and there has been a shocking lack of accountability,” Kelly said.

In a statement to CTV News, a Canada Revenue Agency spokesperson said the agency “strives to achieve 100 per cent accuracy” for both business and individual inquiries.

When the CRA is “made aware that taxpayers were misinformed,” it takes steps to properly address the situation, Philippe Brideau said.

He said taxpayers who believe they have been penalized because they’ve been provided incorrect information have a number of options, listed in the “complaints and disputes” section of the agency’s website.

A spokesperson for Minister of National Revenue Kerry-Lynne Findlay said the CRA has already implemented improvements to its call centres and other services. Among them is a requirement that call centre agents provide their ID number to callers, thus increasing accountability.

Business owners can also ask tax questions in writing or online, or use a mobile app that was launched last summer, Findlay’s office said.

Other findings

The CRA survey also found that 56 per cent of calls to its help line reached the automated system on the first try. The other 44 per cent of calls required “multiple dialing attempts.”

It took callers an average 2.7 attempts to reach the automated phone system and 2.6 minutes to reach a live CRA agent. Some of them spent as long as 31 minutes redialling, according to the survey.

The CRA’s three call centres receive an average of 3.3 million calls a year from businesses, according to the internal document. Of those, approximately 660,000 calls – or 20 per cent – are general inquiries.

For individual tax inquiries, the CRA has six call centres across the country, which answered more than 14 million calls in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

With a report from CTV’s Peter Akman