The chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives has hit back at the health secretary over claims that clinicians were opposing the government’s health bill because of concerns about pensions.

The RCM and Royal College of Nursing announced their all-out opposition to the bill last week.

During an interview following the college’s announcement, health secretary Andrew Lansley accused the RCN of conflating issues about the bill with staffing cuts by trusts trying to save money and the ongoing pensions dispute.

Referring to the RCN’s duel role as a college and a union, he said its “trade union aspect” had “come to the fore”.

He said: “They want to have a go at the government – I completely understand it – but they want to have a go about things like pay and pensions.”

But RCM chief executive Cathy Warwick told Nursing Times that Mr Lansley’s comments had been interpreted as referring to both colleges. She said: “We were quite upset. [The comment] was below the belt.

“What we do is about improving services for women and all our comments about the bill have been focused on that. We have never thought, ‘What is the impact on staff?’ We think, ‘What is the impact for outcomes and for women?’”

She added: “The secretary of state knows we are absolutely about the care that women get.”

Professor Warwick’s comments come as the medical colleges consider whether to strengthen their position on the bill before it returns to Parliament for its final stages early next month.

She said: “We have always felt the key aims [of the government’s reforms] could be implemented without the bill.

“Therefore one of our main objections to it that it’s a cost, and why should we spend that money when we could get what we want by a more simple route?”

Professor Warwick said the college was opposed to several elements of the bill – particularly those about competition in the NHS. She said the organisational shakeup the bill brought about was also unhelpful as the NHS budget was frozen.

She said: “We are seeing the people who need to be concentrating on ensuring financial survival become displaced and distracted. It is not the right time to have such an upheaval.”